Five and a half weeks after House Republicans passed their budget, Democrats and liberal pundits have decided it is political kryptonite that will fatally weaken the GOP.
Their evidence is Tuesday's special election in New York's 26th district, where Democrat Kathy Hochul defeated Republican Jane Corwin for a vacant congressional seat. This is not just any congressional district, but one carried by George W. Bush and John McCain in the last two presidential elections, and one represented for 58 years by a Republican.
Liberals can barely contain their glee. MSNBC's Ed Schultz said the outcome left "Republicans scrambling" while the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne said "it will petrify" Republicans. Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) said it proved "Democrats have the keys to drive the budget debate and play offense in 2012."
Most, but not all, of this is wishful thinking. Ms. Hochul won a plurality (47%) of the votes, not a majority, getting only one percentage point more than Barack Obama as he was losing the district in 2008. Not exactly a compelling performance.
Democrats won only because a third-party candidate?self-proclaimed tea partier Jack Davis?spent a reported $3 million of his own money. Absent Mr. Davis as a spoiler?he got 9% of the vote?Democrats would never have made a serious bid for this district, nor won if they did. Ironically, Mr. Davis ran for the same seat in the last three elections as a Democrat. This year he ran as a populist conservative.
Still the question remains: Did the Medicare reforms proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and supported by Ms. Corwin play a role in the outcome? The answer is yes, though not with the blunt force and trauma some Democrats are claiming.
Polling by American Crossroads (an independent expenditure group with which I'm associated) showed that while Ms. Hochul's Medicare attacks galvanized Democrats, they swayed few independents. Among voters who had an unfavorable view of Ms. Corwin, just 20% focused on Medicare, with most Democrats already voting for Ms. Hochul.
A larger percentage of those voters with an unfavorable opinion of Ms. Corwin's campaign?26%?were concerned about an ugly on-camera incident involving her chief of staff yelling at Mr. Davis in a parking lot. These voters felt Mr. Davis was being unfairly harassed. The defection of these overwhelmingly Republican and independent voters doomed Ms. Corwin.
That's not to say Medicare didn't play an important role. Ms. Hochul pummeled Ms. Corwin over it. The GOP candidate did not respond with TV ads until the campaign's closing week, and only then with an ad many voters thought lacked credibility. It alleged Ms. Hochul had endorsed Medicare and Social Security cuts that she claimed she had not.
An earlier, more aggressive explanation and defense of the Ryan plan would have turned the issue: 55% in the Crossroads survey agreed with GOP arguments for the Ryan reforms while just 36% agreed with the Democrats' arguments agtiny_mce/themes/advanced/langs/en.js?1306355641">ainst it.
Next year, Republicans must describe their Medicare reforms plainly, set the record straight vigorously when Democrats demagogue, and go on the attack. Congressional Republicans?especially in the House?need a political war college that schools incumbents and challengers in the best way to explain, defend and attack on the issue of Medicare reform. They have to become as comfortable talking about Medicare in the coming year as they did in talking about health-care reform last year.
There needs to be preparation and self-education, followed by extensive town halls, outreach meetings, visits to senior citizen centers, and the use of every available communications tool to get the reform message across.
A good starting point is Mr. Ryan's message from his speech at the Economic Club of Chicago that his Medicare reform package "makes no changes for those in or near retirement, and offers future generations a strengthened Medicare program they can count on, with guaranteed coverage options, less help for the wealthy, and more help for the poor and the sick."
The populist note is especially important: When he starts receiving Medicare, Bill Gates should bear a greater share of his health-care costs than the less healthy or less wealthy.
Defense, no matter how robust, well-informed and persistent, is insufficient. Republicans must also go on offense. Democratic nonchalance towards Medicare's bankruptcy in 2024 and the crushing debt it will leave for our children gives the GOP the chance to depict Democrats as tone deaf, irresponsible and reckless. The country can't afford Democratic leaders who simply order the orchestra to play louder as the Titanic tilts and begins to slide under.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, May 25, 2011.