Why the media has misread the congressional victory of Kathy Hochul.
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.
Still another factor in the election was third party and ostensible Tea Party candidate Jack Davis, who garnered 9 percent of the vote. There is no question Jack Davis's candidacy, which resulted from the 78-year old local businessman collecting enough signatures on a petition to get himself on the ballot, played a large part in Corwin's defeat. Politico.com noted that "Davis, a wealthy industrialist and Democrat-turned-tea party candidate...spent nearly $3 million out of his own pocket on the race...polls showed Davis siphoning GOP voters from Corwin." The LA Times reported that "Davis appeared to pull key votes away from Corwin and put the spotlight on the party's struggle to appease tea party supporters." And the Weekly Standard opined that Davis was the beneficiary of a "divided" NY Republican party whose chairman selected Jane Corwin to run instead of decorated Iraqi war veteran David Bellavia. Bellavia, a staunch conservative, responded by trashing Corwin's position on abortion and attempted to run as third party candidate himself. When that attempt failed, Bellavia backed Davis.
There was also a bizarre video. Mike Mallia, chief of staff for Jane Corwin, confronted Davis with a camera and asked him why he “backed out of the debate.” Davis and his aide then assaulted Mallia. Davis spokesman Curtis Ellis characterized the event as "a deliberate harassment and attempt at intimidation by campaign operatives desperate to keep Jack from getting to Washington." The Erie County GOP, which backed Corwin, released the video, which led the Davis campaign to accuse Corwin of participating in a setup. Corwin denied the accusation, claiming Mallia was there on his own time and without her knowledge. But a poll taken by a local news source, The Batavian, showed this exchange hurting Corwin far more than Davis.
Batavian publisher Howard Owen explained another key factor in Corwin's defeat, unmentioned in the mainstream media. In the moribund economy of Upstate New York, like many other "rust belt" areas in the nation, free trade, as embodied by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), is despised by those who believe they have borne the lion's share of job losses caused by outsourcing. According to Owen, this was one of the critical issues driving the election. Davis was a "one-issue candidate opposed to free trade," as was Democrat Kathy Hochul. Corwin? The Republican refused to answer the question one way or the other, and when Davis refused to participate in the aforementioned debate, voters who abandoned him aligned themselves with Hochul, because, as Owens explained, "they had nowhere else to go."
Another possible factor in Corwin's defeat was a story in The Buffalo News taking Corwin to task for exaggerating her experience, noting that her claim of having spent "36 years as a successful businesswoman" would have meant that the 44-year-old had been one "since the age of 8."
Finally, there was the reason for the special election in the first place. Republican Rep. Chris Lee resigned literally hours after gossip website Gawker reported that the married Congressman had sent emails, as well as pictures of himself bare chested, to an unidentified 34-year-old Maryland woman who had posted an ad in the "Women for Men" section of Craigslist personals. It is quite possible that some voters were turned off by the Republican Party per se as a result.
Thus, while Medicare was a factor, it was hardly the only explanation for Hochul's victory. National Journalist columnist Charlie Cook offers a somewhat amusing, but equally accurate take on the "referendum" assessment: "In this Republican-leaning 26th District fight, there is one Democrat, one Republican and, oh, yes, a wealthy, abortion-rights, economic protectionist, former Republican, former Democrat, current tea partier, who ran for Congress in 2004, 2006 and 2008--spending a total of $5.2 million of his own money--and has already spent at least another $1.7 million in this race for Congress. If anyone can find a race next year with a similar configuration, be my guest and apply the 'lessons learned' from this race to that one," he wrote.
Perhaps the real explanation is even simpler, and far less amusing for Republicans. Medicare reform is a complicated issue. So is the budget deficit. When Democrats can explain their entire platform in sound bites, such as "tax the rich" as a solution for budget deficits, or even a single word like "Medi-scare" to obscure the necessity for genuine reform, that's a huge advantage when it comes to selling their agenda to an electorate, much of which is already attuned to sound-bites at best, and paying little to no attention at worst. The real lesson Republicans have to learn is how to compete with Democrats on that playing field. Perhaps what the Democratic victory in NY-26 really demonstrates is itself a sound-bite: he (or she) who demagogues the best, wins.
Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website JewishWorldReview.com.