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According to much of the media, Kathy Hochul’s special election victory by a 47-42 percent margin over Republican State Assemblywoman Jane Corwin in New York’s 26th congressional district, a traditionally Republican area which encompasses the suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester, was a “referendum” on Republican Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) plan to reform Medicare. Was it? Certainly the final Siena Research Institute poll taken May18-21 shows that 21 percent of the voters believed Medicare was the most important issue — but not in the way Democrats describe it. Nor was it the only issue. Not by a long shot.
The architect of Medicare reform, Rep. Paul Ryan, illuminates the real story behind that component of Hochul’s win. “There is a Medicare story to be told here,” Ryan said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe Show on Wednesday. “And the Medicare story that’s being told here is the president and his party have decided to shamelessly distort and demagogue Medicare. So we’re going to see a new ‘Medi-scare’ reform campaign here.”
More importantly, during the same conversation, both Ryan and host Joe Scarborough illuminated the fundamental problem Republicans face in countering such demagoguery with facts. After Ryan patiently explained what his reform program was all about, Scarborough said, “So Paul, so that took you two, two-and-a-half minutes to explain the problem… and for [Americans] to really understand this problem, we would need at least ten, fifteen minutes. So you put that on one side, on the other side you run 30-second ads and say, ‘Paul Ryan wants to push senior citizens over the cliff’…how does anyone reform an entitlement program?”
Democrats did in fact run a commercial showing an elderly woman in a wheelchair being pushed over a cliff! This is the essence of demagoguery because nothing in Ryan’s program applies to anyone 55 or older, all of whom are exempt from any reforms that would go into effect. “Here’s the problem,” Ryan said. “If we keep demagoguing each other… [Medicare] is going to collapse, it’s going to go bankrupt, and we’re going to have a debt crisis. The people who get hurt the first are the elderly and the poor.”
Yet demagoguery was the centerpiece of Hochul’s campaign. In the final debate between the two front-running contenders (third-party candidate Jack Davis was a no-show), Corwin tried to explain what Ryan’s plan is and why she supported it. “The plan I am supporting is not a voucher system,” she contended. “We have to take action now, because what my opponent is advocating for is to do nothing. If we do nothing, the plan goes bankrupt in 13 years.” That is an intellectual argument. Hochul’s counter-argument? Pure emotionalism. “I have made a commitment that I will take to my grave,” she said. “I will fight any plan that tries to decimate Medicare.”
Yet, the clear influence of Hochul’s hysterical misinformation campaign has been obscured — or ignored — by the mainstream media and Democrats. ABC News characterized Hochul’s victory as “the first referendum on the House Republican budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan” and a “bellwether for 2012.” The Associated Press said Hochul’s win “revolved around the key issue in the race: the preserving of Medicare.” The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne called it a “big setback for Paul Ryan’s budget and a warning for Republican incumbents everywhere.” Slate Magazine claimed it was in part a “referendum on Medicare — there’s really no spinning away the fact that voters panicked over losing it.” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) claimed, “New Yorkers of all political persuasions do not want to destroy Medicare.” Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) offered up his usual hyperbole: “Democrats in Congress and even some candid Republicans know the plan to kill Medicare is irresponsible and indefensible. Last night, voters showed the country and the Congress that they know it too,” he said.
But Medicare was far from the only factor in the race. The same Sienna Research Institute poll which showed Medicare as the chief concern of voters in NY-26 also revealed that their second biggest concern was jobs, followed by the federal budget deficit. And here’s the kicker: Medicare garnered 21 percent of the vote in the poll, while jobs and the budget deficit received 20 percent and 19 percent, respectively. The poll’s self-published margin of error? 3.9 percent — meaning all three issues, statistically speaking, were of equal importance.
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