New York Special Election a Litmus Test for GOP

The future of federal fiscal policy may lie not in the negotiations that Vice President Joe Biden is holding with bipartisan congressional leaders, or in the meetings of what’s now the Senate “Gang of Five,” or in deliberations at the Senate Budget Committee to produce a fiscal 2012 budget resolution.

Instead, it may lie in a special election in a traditionally Republican House congressional district in western New York State where Democratic Kathy Hochul, the Erie County clerk, is hammering Republican Jane Corwin, a state Assemblywoman, over the latter’s endorsement of a provision in the House-passed budget plan of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., that would convert Medicare into a voucher program.

The special election to fill the vacancy created by Republican Chris Lee’s resignation is tomorrow, and the Wall Street Journal reports that Hochul has built a slight lead. “There would not be a competitive race in New York 26th [the district] if it were not for the Ryan budget and its Medicare proposal,” Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin told the Journal.

That matters. Here’s why:

During the recent congressional recess, House Republican incumbents were severely criticized by their elderly constituents at town hall meetings for voting for Ryan’s budget plan, which sent leading Republicans into a flurry of frantic activity after lawmakers returned to Washington.

House GOP leaders first suggested they would back away from the Medicare provision, only to change course when hard-line conservatives expressed outrage. Then, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was forced to apologize to Ryan after saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he did not support Ryan’s Medicare proposal because it amounted to “social engineering” from the right.

So, with House Republican leaders and Gingrich reined in, Republicans again seem united behind Ryan’s plan. That could all change, however, if Hochul hangs on to win because it would send a strong signal to Republican incumbents that backing the Medicare voucher plan could endanger them politically.

Elections have consequences, and not just for the candidates involved in a particular race.

Politicians still talk about the re-election loss that former House Ways and Means Chairman Al Ullman suffered in 1980 after proposing a value-added tax, saying the result shows that such a tax would prove hazardous to anyone’s political health.

Meanwhile, Republicans still talk about how President George H.W. Bush lost his 1992 reelection bid after breaking the “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge he made at the 1988 Republican National Convention.

That Ullman and Bush probably lost more for other reasons – the former because he had lost touch with his district, the latter due to a weak economy – seems not to matter. Once conventional wisdom takes hold, it’s hard to change it.

If Hochul wins tomorrow, look for House Republican incumbents to run from any sweeping plans for Medicare. Look, too, for everyone to get nervous about cutting big programs of any kind that lots of people like.

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