The conservative ideologues in Washington discovered Tuesday night that their fond dream of privatizing Medicare is political suicide.
This should not have come as a surprise. Back in early April, when the tea-partying House Republicans were preparing to vote yes on a plan to eradicate guaranteed health care for seniors - one of the most popular government programs of the last half-century - their own strategists warned them that the privatization idea was nuts. Their internal polls showed that a majority of Americans liked Medicare just the way it was.
But ideologues are not swayed by such trifles as factual reality. They swim far from the American mainstream, animated only by their own beliefs. Conservatives have always been hostile to the concept of Medicare - in 1961, aspiring politician Ronald Reagan said it was an attack on freedom - and so it came to pass, six weeks ago, that the House Republicans voted to turn back the clock 50 years, to replace Medicare with a privatized voucher plan that would further empower the insurance companies and force future seniors to pay more money out of pocket.
Republican strategists had reportedly warned the lawmakers, "You might not want to go there." Now we know why. Check out what happened Tuesday night in a conservative congressional district in Upstate New York. The voters basically told the Washington ideologues to keep their mitts off Medicare. They sent this message by electing a Democrat to fill a congressional seat that has been solidly Republican for the last century and a half. (The seat was vacant because its previous Republican occupant, Internet sex cruiser Christopher Lee, he of the buff physique, quit in February.)
The Republican debacle near Buffalo is a tale of before and after. Before the House GOP voted to kill Medicare, the cinch winner was destined to be Republican Jane Corwin. But after the vote, Corwin began to slide, and her token Democratic opponent, Kathy Hochul, began to rise. Corwin insisted that privatization would actually "protect" Medicare, but she was trumped by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which concluded that the out-of-pocket expenses for a future 65-year-old "would be almost 40 percent higher with private coverage under the GOP plan than they would be with a continuation of traditional Medicare."
Panicked Washington Republicans and their conservative special-interest allies pumped in a ton of TV money, in the hopes of reversing Corwin's slide. They ultimately outspent the Democratic camp, 2-1. At the eleventh hour, Corwin did a flip-flop - she said she wasn't "married" to killing Medicare - thereby admitting that the plan was a political loser. She wound up losing by four percentage points.
It's hard to fathom why the House Republicans didn't see this coming; after all, landslide public support for Medicare has long been a given. In 2009, even the tea party protesters were saying things like "Keep your government hands off my Medicare," which at minimum reflected the broadly held belief that the senior safety net should be deemed inviolate. Tea party folks may want to "cut" government in the abstract but not to the extent that they themselves feel the pain.
So why did the House Republicans rush to embrace the eradication of traditional Medicare? Why did all but four of them commence to march in step over the cliff? In part, they did so for tactical reasons. Many of them fear for their jobs. They went after Medicare to demonstrate their conservative bona fides and, hopefully, ensure that they wouldn't be challenged in Republican primaries next year by right-wing extremists.
But many voted to kill Medicare because they truly believe it's the way to go. These are people who typically manage to convince themselves that the mainstream thinks the way they do. These are people who never learn. Six years ago, after George W. Bush eked out his narrow reelection win, they were convinced that he had won a mandate to push for the privatization of Social Security. But the more Bush talked up the idea on the stump in 2005, the worse it polled. Certain programs remain politically untouchable.
Now, the Republicans will head toward the '12 campaign having delivered a potent rhetorical weapon to the opposition party. Rest assured that the Democrats, armed with actual evidence, will paint the GOP as the enemy of Medicare in senior-heavy swing states such as Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
Even some conservatives seem to realize their own party's blunder; as one key interest group, Karl Rove's American Crossroads, acknowledged Wednesday, "What is clear is that this [New York] election is a wake-up call to anyone who thinks that 2012 will be just like 2010. It's going to be a tougher environment."
How refreshing it is, for once, to read the truth without the spin.