So what did the GOP loss in NY-26 really mean? For the Republicans trouble, and an opportunity to pivot to a better message as they face the 2012 elections. First, it is indeed true that special elections are not reliable predictors of the future. And the NY-26 race was a strange 3-way contest, with a well-funded independent campaign by a second Democrat running as a Tea party conservative. Pretty sneaky. That said, the regular Democrat won with almost half the total vote. Even after the third party faker’s support mostly collapsed in the final days of the election. And while the DCCC’s gleeful claims about this race being a pure referendum on the Ryan plan are overstated, the Ryan Medicare reform plan was clearly a dud with voters.
That is no surprise. The Ryan plan is a serious attempt to the face the crippling fiscal crisis our entitlement spending is certain to create. It is a courageous plan. Which, as usual in politics, is exactly the problem. If the voters wanted an adult approach to entitlement spending, we wouldn’t have an entitlement spending crisis in the first place. Hence the current situation. Politically, fixing entitlement spending is like trying to strangle a large porcupine with your bare hands; painful, bloody and usually unsuccessful.
Most old political hands in the GOP knew all this from the beginning. They hated the Ryan plan as a political vulnerability. But the energy in the House to try to tackle spending in one big move made it impossible to stop. The issue was not so much the intent of Ryan’s plan, but the timing. The old rule of politics is to win the election, and then do the hard things. Instead, the House GOP tried the reverse. Now, it is true that big and important entitlement and spending reform might have happened this year if the President had any interest in actually facing these tough issues. But he did not. Instead, President Obama decided to toss his own Deficit Commission’s smart recommendations into the circular file and rev up the Mediscare machine. The White House wants to use the reassuring adjectives of spending cuts, but has no interest in really facing the reality of tackling entitlements.
So now the House GOP now has a choice to make. Either pivot to a jobs message, which is where the voters are and where the economy bungling Democrats are most vulnerable, or continue to put on the green eye shades and take the voters straight to Pain College. NY-26 sent a clear message where that will lead.
For months many of the GOP’s most caffeinated Tea Party freshman having been waving Seppuku knives around and claiming to be ready to lose the next election on their principles. It just happened. The question now is just how much of the spending and entitlement crisis will the Republicans solve, if we lose 40 more seats?
Mike Murphy is a Republican political consultant.