Saturday, May 28, 2011

The New York 26th special election and what it means for the budget debate

By Richard K. Barry

It's been fun to watch Republicans scramble over the past week to downplay the importance of the Medicare issue in Democrat
Kathy Hochul's upset victory in the special election for New York's 26th Congressional District. For the record, Hochul won with 47% of the vote over GOP candidate Jane Corwin, who got 43% and Tea Party candidate Jack Davis, who got 9%.

My favourite conservative spin has been the
claim by Erick Erickson at REDSTATE that the results had everything to do with local New York politics and little or nothing to do with Medicare or Paul Ryan's budget plan. In the Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove also did his best to suggest that we shouldn't read too much into the results as any sort of supposed referendum on Medicare. Let's face it. These guys need to believe this, else they have a problem.

Yes, there was some vote splitting due to Jack Davis' third party candidacy, although it is always difficult to know where a third party candidate's votes would go had they not been in the race. Would they be split amongst other contenders, or would they just have stayed home?

The bottom line is that Republican
Chris Lee won the seat back in November, a mere seven months ago, by a margin of 73.6% to 26.4%. Everyone knows that special elections are indeed special, but those are some pretty big honkin' numbers and you typically would want to look for a defining issue to help you understand what happened when a district flips so decidedly.

So aside from who actually won and who lost, let's not forget that the Democratic vote from 2010 went up by about 20% and the aggregate conservative vote went down by about 20%. Big numbers indeed in a district that has been a stable "keep" for Republicans.

But this is all old news.

Here's some new stuff. A poll has just been released by
Democracy Corp indicating that disapproval of Republican House members is in fact surging. They write:
Republican leaders and conservative pundits have spun Democrat Kathy Hochul's upset win in New York's 26th Congressional District as exceptional - with peculiar ballot line, Tea Party independents, quality of the candidates, and Democratic message discipline. But our national poll completed Wednesday (May 25) shows that New York's 26th is not alone. It is an advanced indicator of a sharp pull back from Republicans, particularly those in the House.

Disapproval of the Republicans in the House of Representatives has surged from 46% in February to 55% in April and to a striking 59% now. Disapproval outnumbers approval two-to-one; intense disapproval from three-to-one. For the first time in more than a year, the Democrats are clearly even in the named Congressional ballot - an 8-point swing from the election. This period captured the introduction of the Republican budget plan and vote by the House - and voters do not like what they see.

There are really just a few basic truths in politics and it is remarkable how clueless Republicans have been in understanding one of them. I am almost embarrassed to repeat it, it's just so obvious, but here it is: A lot of people like the idea of lower taxes and a reduction in services as long as they don't think that it will be "their" services, "their" programs, "their" entitlements that will be cut.

When the voters in the NY-26th started to clue in that a very identifiable and important program was on the chopping block, they didn't like it. And if Democracy Corp's poll is any indication, voters in western New York are not alone.

Simple, simple, simple.

Here is where all of this goes for me: Voters need to get real about the kinds of programs, services and entitlements they think our collective public action should provide (that means government) and start to think about how we pay for it, including plans to increase much needed revenue (that means taxes).

It's one measure of how successful conservatives have been in framing the budget debate that we seldom hear quoted the sage comment by early 20th century
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that "taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society."

It's easy to spin one lonely special election; let's hope this starts us on the way to reframing the budget debate across the entire country. That would be courageous.

(Cross -posted to
Lippmann's Ghost)

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