What are the lessons of New York 26?
We all know the narrative: The GOP candidate was riding high until the Democrat shouted Medicare. Does that mean Medicare is the new third rail of American politics? Now that we are getting down to specifics of cutting spending, is the Tea Party finished? Are we back to the old politics of ever more spending, ever more debt?
The short answers? No. No. Not a chance. Following are key lessons of the Upstate New York voting.
Lesson #1: Unless a candidate shows commitment and conviction, the GOP vote is easily splintered. We have known this since at least 1992, when Ross Perot split the vote of President George H.W. Bush and gave the presidency to Bill Clinton.
A sizeable part of the GOP vote of 1988 was frustrated with Mr. Bush’s fiscal policies, breaking the no new taxes pledge in particular. Polling in the period suggested that some voters were open to a businessman with a populist message. I have long wondered if the Clinton campaign identified this frustrated group, understood the kind of candidate who would appeal to it, and directly or indirectly engineered Ross Perot’s entry into the race. But even if they did not, it has been clear ever since that a sizable part of the GOP vote has little or no institutional attachment to the party itself.
Some Republicans have dismissed the NY 26 outcome as a fluke. How often do you have a third candidate in the field? But Tea Party candidate Jack Davis got roughly nine percent of the vote. Why?
According to reports, Republican Jane Corwin was a tepid, not even particularly knowledgeable carrier of the GOP message. Here is a lesson from 2010 that applies to 2011 in NY 26. To hold its vote together, the GOP must put up candidates who understand why the vast run-ups in spending and debt of recent years must end – and who shows conviction in following through. Otherwise a good portion of the GOP vote will head for the Tea Party hills.
Lesson #2: Seniors want to see knowledge and conviction, too. Republicans ask, how could seniors respond to the Democrats’ Medi-scare message? The Ryan Plan doesn’t touch seniors. But just because the Democrats played Medi-scare music at a rock concert decibel level doesn’t mean that voters heard what they were singing.
Here is an analogy. Bear with me.
In Florida, in the closing days of the 1994 gubernatorial race, Democrats launched a phone bank blitz aimed at elderly voters. The robocall messages charged that GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush would end Social Security. Never mind that state governors have no power over Social Security, an entirely federal program. And yet the phone banks ended Bush’s hopes that year.
Yes, some Florida seniors were ignorant and confused. But a bigger factor was that Bush represented a new kind of leader for Florida. He was change. Was he hope? In fatal fact, he had not yet established himself as someone to trust with a major shift in direction. Four years later he had, and he won.
In NY 26, Corwin positioned herself as the candidate of change, but she blew an uncertain trumpet. Would she hold steady on her pledge to fight for a 55-year-old limit to Medicare change? Would the Republicans generally?
As with GOP voters who split to the Tea Party, the key issue here is trust. There is no substitute for candidates who convey clarity and conviction.
Lesson #3: Remember that at stake is something bigger than any of us alone. First, there is Medicare itself. Without change, it is doomed. Projections have it eating up the entire federal budget – everything – within the lifetimes of today’s young workers. Every year, revised estimates bring the program’s bankruptcy several years closer than before.
The same is true of Federal spending generally. Bond raters talk of downgrading U.S. government debt. The IMF warns that the borrowing can’t go on and we are showing no will to control it. The Chinese look for a way to reduce their dollar holdings. Numerous nations look for an alternative reserve currency.
What’s more, a nation’s military strength is built on its financial strength. Already defense spending is being cut to levels some say are dangerous, to make way for the domestic spending boom. Are we prepared to turn our country into just another global power, equal or subordinate to, say, China? Is that the world we want to leave our children? Or live in ourselves?
So what are the key lessons of NY 26?
In 2012, GOP candidates will not be able to wing it. When they advocate cutting spending, they will need to know what they are talking about and believe it. And they must be clear that the Democrat’s alternative is not Bill Clinton’s bridge to the future. It is a bridge to nowhere.