Change in Unlikely Places

June 1981 was when it was time to get out – pack it all up and head for California, specifically Southern California, specifically Los Angeles. Rochester, the one in New York, is no place to be as you try to reinvent yourself. There’s a reason Rochester is called Smugtown, USA – prosperous and dull, and satisfied with the way things were, and are, which is how they always should be. Don’t expect the unexpected. There’s not much of that. Yes, politically, the city and its suburbs are fairly liberal. Their congresswoman is Louis Slaughter – a real firebrand, of the good sort. But that doesn’t mean Rochester itself is an exciting place. And of course it’s cold there.

So California seemed best, or it seemed like a good idea at the time – start a new career in an entirely new field, live at the beach and bop around in a little red Italian convertible, and just do something new, or many things. Why not? Things always work out for the best, or they don’t – but you’ll never know which it is unless you try those things. And sitting quietly in upstate New York, grading student essays each evening and watching the snow fall in the darkness outside the window, year after year, seemed like death of a sort. That’s it? That’s all there is?

But some folks like that sort of stability, and predictability. And in upstate New York they have that predictability, especially in their politics. Louise Slaughter represents New York’s 28th congressional district, a district that includes Rochester but stretches over through Buffalo and beyond. But much of it sort of overlaps with New York’s 26th congressional district – the one is gerrymandered in and around the other. But that was done on purpose. Slaughter’s district is reliably Democratic and NY-26 is reliably Republican – it has been so since there’s been a modern Republican Party, never ever electing a Democrat. And everyone is happy.

But then things changed, as Steven Benen explains:

As of two months ago, Democratic Party officials didn’t want to invest any money at all in the special election in New York’s 26th district – they saw the Buffalo-area race as a sure loser. It’s a ruby-red district, and with a credible Republican candidate, nearly everyone in both parties assumed the race wouldn’t be especially close.

As it turns out, the outcome wasn’t especially close, but in a way that was hard to predict when the race got underway.

Much to the chagrin of Republicans, the defining issue of the special election was the House GOP’s radical budget plan, most notably the Republican drive to end Medicare and replace it with a privatized voucher scheme. Jane Corwin (R) said she supported her party’s plan, and Kathy Hochul (D) talked about little else.

And of course Hochul won – 47% to 43% – and in one of the most reliably Republican districts in the Northeast. What? And Benen sees it this way – “If this race had been held in November 2010, Corwin would have won by double digits, without breaking a sweat. But thanks entirely to Republican extremism, the political landscape has already changed quite a bit over the last six months.”

And he notes that if these three paragraphs in the New York Time’s account don’t make the Republican Party nervous, then they’re just not paying close enough attention:

Voters, who turned out in strikingly large numbers for a special election, said they trusted Ms. Hochul, the county clerk of Erie County, to protect Medicare.

“I have almost always voted the party line,” said Gloria Bolender, a Republican from Clarence who is caring for her 80-year-old mother. “This is the second time in my life I’ve voted against my party.”

Pat Gillick, a Republican from East Amherst, who also cast a ballot for Ms. Hochul, said, “The privatization of Medicare scares me.”


The standard GOP talking point on this special election is to note that Jack Davis, running as a Tea Partying independent, split the right and made it impossible for Corwin to win. It’s a weak excuse. For one thing, given Hochul’s margin of victory, the results were still a disaster for the GOP, Davis or no Davis. For another, if Republicans thought a third-party spoiler made the race unwinnable, why did the national party, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Karl Rove’s attack operation invest so heavily to try to win?

And there seems to be general agreement on just what is going on here:

What we saw in Buffalo was a test – how is the public responding to the GOP’s far-right agenda in Congress? It’s a test Republicans failed. Those vulnerable GOP incumbents, who voted to eliminate Medicare because their party leaders told them to, have every reason to be nervous. These members were likely told, “Don’t worry, during your re-election campaign, the party, the Chamber, and Crossroads GPS will rally behind you in your district. Everything will be fine.”

Of course, they said the same thing to Jane Corwin. If it didn’t help her in a reliably red district, the anxiety among swing-district Republicans this morning should be palpable.

And Benen suggests that DCCC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, should be sending a gift basket to Boehner, Cantor, and Paul Ryan – and particularly to Paul Ryan, who came up with that Medicare voucher plan.

Of course he was unhappy. See Jennifer Epstein in Politico – Ryan Blames NY-26 on Dem “Scare Tactics” – he didn’t want to end Medicare, he just wanted to privatize it. You’d get these little vouchers to help you buy private health insurance from the cartel of five or six giant for-profit corporations who might want to sell you that sort of thing, if they could somehow make big money doing that. No one sees how they could, but you never know. But basically the government would help you shop around, and maybe toss in a few bucks, and then step out of the way. That was still Medicare. Why was everyone picking on him?

The voters in NY-26 said nope, that wasn’t Medicare – that was just slapping the Medicare name on something else entirely. And they weren’t pleased.

In fact they weren’t pleased with the whole Ryan budget. Getting the government out of Medicare, except for the coupons, like coupons for the Early Bird dinner at Red Lobster, was the cornerstone of that budget. Get Medicare off the books, and lower taxes on the wealthy, was the plan – with the idea of the government also phasing out Medicaid too, then food stamps, then unemployment insurance, and eventually Social Security. Let people take care of themselves. That is the path to prosperity. Countries with the least government have the best growth and the most thriving economies and vast wealth floating around everyone. Of course when pressed for an example of such a country, with almost no government all, Somalia always pops to mind.

But almost every single Republican in the House voted for the Ryan budget – a symbolic vote to show they were committed to full-bore small government prosperity, and fiscal responsibility, and individual responsibility and all that. They call it freedom. You’re on your own, so man-up and take care of yourself.

This might not have been a good idea, as one conservative, David Frum, sees disaster coming for the Republicans:

The political dangers in the Ryan budget could have been predicted in advance. In fact, they were predicted in advance – and widely. Yet the GOP proceeded anyway, all but four members of the House putting themselves on record in favor. Any acknowledgment of these dangers was instantly proclaimed taboo, as Newt Gingrich has painfully learned. Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer have enthusiastically promoted Paul Ryan as a presidential candidate. And this morning, as the reckoning arrives, the denial continues. …

In reality, Ryan is very unlikely to accept this draft. He declined the opportunity to run for US Senate in Wisconsin, likely because he sensed he could not win a state-wide election in which his budget would be the main issue.

Now we’re likely headed to the worst of all possible worlds. The GOP will run on a platform crafted to be maximally obnoxious to downscale voters. Some may hope that Tim Pawlenty’s biography may cushion the pain. Perhaps that’s right, at least as compared to Mitt Romney, who in the 2008 primaries did worst among Republicans earning less than $100,000 a year. And yes, Pawlenty is keeping his distance from the Ryan plan. But biography only takes you so far. The big issues of 2012 will be jobs and incomes in a nation still unrecovered from the catastrophe of 2008-2009.

What does the GOP have to say to hard-pressed voters? Thus far the answer is: we offer Medicare cuts, Medicaid cuts, and tighter money aimed at raising the external value of the dollar. No candidate, not even if he or she is born in a log cabin, would be able to sell that message to America’s working class.

Kevin Drum thinks it might actually be worse than that, and he suggests rephrasing this:

What does the GOP have to say to hard-pressed voters? Thus far the answer is: we offer Medicare cuts for you and your children, Medicaid cuts for you and your family, reduced taxes for CEOs and other fat cats, and tighter money aimed at wrecking American industry by making our goods too expensive for anyone overseas to afford. Plus lots of wars and unquestioning support for the Israeli right! Don’t forget that.

And Drum adds this:

That is indeed a tough one. Ronald Reagan himself would have a difficult time winning with that message hanging around his neck. But then, Ronald Reagan wouldn’t be able to win the Republican nomination these days in the first place. Too liberal by far. So I guess it’s a moot point.

As for Paul Ryan, if it looked like your super-amazing budget plan was bringing down your entire party’s electoral prospects of course you’d be feeling defensive:

One day after his party – as well as his 2012 budget blueprint – was dealt a stinging defeat in a New York special election, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Wednesday that the election was not a referendum on Republicans’ proposed changes to Medicare, and he argued that Democrats had distorted the issue for political gain. …

“The Medicare take-away from this is that the Democrats are happy to shamelessly distort and demagogue the issue trying to scare seniors to win an election,” Ryan continued. “We have a year and a half for the truth to come out, and when it does, the American people are going to know they’ve been lied to, and I think we’ll be doing very well. If you demagogue entitlement reform, you’re hastening a debt crisis; you’re bringing about Medicare’s collapse. And I don’t think seniors are going to like that truth when they discover it.”

Steven Benen is not amused:

It no doubt makes Ryan feel better about himself to think his plan would be wildly popular were it not for those rascally Democrats, but he hasn’t been able to point to a single falsehood told by his detractors. And really, therein lies the point – Dems don’t need to lie about the House Republican plan to end Medicare; they need only tell the truth. The public recoils, not because of demagoguery, but because the plan to end the existing program and replace it with a privatized voucher scheme just isn’t going to be popular.

As for hastening a debt crisis, Ryan clearly struggles with arithmetic, but his plan doesn’t actually address the debt problem his party created. On the contrary, Ryan wants to shift Medicare costs burdens from the feds to families, and apply the savings to more tax cuts.

Also today, Ryan whined repeatedly that “scare tactics” are wrong, only to note in the next breath that government bureaucrats and rising deficits are likely to destroy all that is good in the world.

This is not going well for the Republicans, and then it got worse:

The Senate on Wednesday resoundingly rejected a budget sponsored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that calls for significant cuts to future Medicare benefits.

The 40-57 vote came one day after Republicans suffered an upset defeat in a special election in upstate New York where Democrats made Medicare cuts the primary issue.

Five Republican senators voted against a motion to take up the ambitious House budget plan, which suffered only four Republican defections when it passed the lower chamber earlier this year.

Four centrists voted no: Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who favored larger budget cuts than what was proposed in Ryan’s budget, was the fifth no vote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided to stick it to the Senate Republicans – they wanted to put off the vote, but Reid moved it to the floor a few hours after the dust had settled in upstate New York. He forced them to go on record for all Ryan was calling for – it was a roll-call vote. Stick with your party line – phase out all entitlement programs and give the money saved by that to the millionaires or billionaires, or vote no, as almost every American voter would want you to. Which will it be? Go one record, now. Put up or shut up. It wasn’t pretty.

And there is a price to pay here. At a town-hall event in his home district recently, Rob Woodall, a Republican congressman from Georgia, argued flat-out and with no apologies that Medicare shouldn’t exist – but it was a little more complicated than that. He seems to want taxpayer-subsidized health care for himself, but not for his constituents. A local voter got on a roll about how her former employer doesn’t make healthcare benefits available to retired employees, so she likes Medicare. But he mocked her. “Hear yourself, ma’am, hear yourself – you want the government to take care of you, because your employer decided not to take care of you. My question is, ‘When do I decide I’m going to take care of me?'”

But then it got really interesting, as another constituent suggested the Republican (Ryan) plan for vouchers may be inadequate in covering health care costs, costs that just keep going up and up. Woodall suggested she leave the United States and move to some other industrialized country. Yep, America, love it or leave it.

But then Woodall was asked about his own commitment to this wonderful all-American self-reliance. If he is so big on that shouldn’t he forgo government-subsidized healthcare after all?

“I have a question about taking care of you. You have government subsidized health care, but you are not obligated to take that if you don’t want to. Why aren’t you going out on the free market in the state where you’re a resident and buy your own health care? Be an example,” said a constituent in the new video.

“Your question is,” Woodall responded, “my government’s willing to give me lots and lots of stuff for free and why don’t I take it?” …

But his constituent presses him further. “Answer the question: Why haven’t you gone out and got it?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought I did. It’s because it’s free. It’s because it’s free,” he said. “The same reason I went out to Walgreen’s and bought ActivOn and I don’t have any arthritis pain: Because it’s free. Folks, if you give people things for free, don’t blame them for taking them.”

And Steven Benen, again, comments:

Of course, no one is blaming Woodall for taking advantage of taxpayer financed health care for him and his family. Rather, he’s getting blamed for taking advantage of taxpayer financed health care for him and his family while trying to deny those same benefits to everyone else’s family.

For that matter, it’s not “free.” We all help pay for Woodall’s health care coverage. If he thinks that’s a good model, he should reevaluate his position on health care policy. If he thinks that’s a bad model, he should introduce legislation to end members of Congress’ role in the federal health plan.

That makes sense, and Benen adds this:

This comes up from time to time, and I always find it amazing. My personal favorite is Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), who based his campaign on attacking health care reform, but who balked at the idea of giving up government-subsidized health care for himself.

“What am I, not supposed to have health care?” Grimm said earlier this year. “It’s practicality. I’m not going to become a burden for the state because I don’t have health care, and God forbid I get into an accident and I can’t afford the operation. That can happen to anyone.”

Grimm, like Woodall, soon after voted to take away health care for millions of people, blissfully unaware of how many of them might be tempted to ask, “What am I, not supposed to have health care?”

Neither of them stopped to ask, “When do I decide I’m going to take care of me?”

This just keeps getting stranger all the time.

But something has changed. It even changed in dull and predictable upstate New York.

And consider this. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced this week that congressional Republicans really would like to help the victims of the brutal tornado in Joplin, Missouri, but emergency aid wouldn’t be automatic. The community would get its federal disaster relief, just as soon as the Republicans received a sort of ransom – off-setting spending cuts.

And Benen adds this:

He wasn’t kidding. When Tom DeLay was the House Majority Leader, Republican agreed that emergency disaster relief should be immediate. But by 2011 standards, Tom DeLay was a moderate.

But House Republicans finally approved a one billion dollar aid package, right after they got their ransom:

House Republicans, who require spending cuts whenever new spending is proposed, said the FEMA funds would be paid by cutting $1.5 billion from an Energy Department loan program for the production of fuel-efficient vehicles.

There you have it, as Benen notes:

Discouraging the production of fuel-efficient vehicles when gas is four dollars a gallon in order to help a decimated American community, certainly makes sense, doesn’t it? Did voters elect congressional Republicans or comic-book villains?

And he also notes that Oliver Willis puts it this way:

Let me repeat: Republicans say that the gods of spending cuts must be appeased before we assist our fellow Americans in a time of disaster…. The Republican Party has so far gone around the bend that it’s beginning to resemble an actual monster.

And the odd thing is that the smug and dull people in the far upper left corner of upstate New York were the first to actually jump in and fight that very real monster. Who knew? Maybe interesting things happen there after all.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Change in Unlikely Places

  1. Rick says:

    “The Medicare take-away from this is that the Democrats are happy to shamelessly distort and demagogue the issue trying to scare seniors to win an election,” Ryan continued.

    Paul Ryan seems perpetually confused about the public reception of his plan. He seems to assume that, since seniors still don’t like it, they must have been bamboozled by the Democrats’ “demagoguery,” and don’t seem to realize it won’t effect them! Why can’t they figure out that it will impact only people 55 or under?

    This goes back to that old political maxim, that voters vote their own pocketbook — and, of course, it always surprises us when we find out that this is not true.

    My theory is, seniors understand just fine that nobody’s proposing to take away their benefits. What bothers them — and bothers me, since I’m one of them — is that Republicans assume any proposal is okay with us, as long as it hurts our children and grandchildren, but leaves us alone. So why am I not supposed to care about what hurts my kids and grandkids?

    Then there’s that other maxim that says young voters don’t bother thinking about their future until it’s way too late, which is another trope I think Ryan and the Republicans probably give too much credence to. My guess is, a lot of the pushback that is catching Republicans flummoxed comes from young voters who — surprise! — don’t like the idea of someone doing away with their Medicare!

    There are two competing visions of America — both what it is, and what it ought to be: there’s liberal and there’s conservative. Liberals think we’re all in this together — and so to keep the community healthy, we have to look after all its citizens — whereas conservatives think it’s every man for himself, and society will not be healthy if we allow the “slackers” (which they apparently think describes over half our population) to freeload off the hardworking “producers”.

    And this helps clarify what Republicans are doing when they try to “improve” Social Security (Bush, by doing away with the “Security” part, and also the “Social” part), and Medicare (Ryan, by replacing it with devalued “vouchers”).

    Let’s face it, Republicans don’t believe in Social Security and Medicare, but they can’t be honest and publicly argue for abolishing these things, since they know that would be political suicide, so they spend their lives trying to abolish these things while pretending not to.

    But what else should Republicans do? Should they continue to come up with more tricks to fool voters into thinking they are not trying to do away with programs that voters decided long ago they want to keep?

    I know it’s not my job to advise the Republicans, but I think they’d do better at the polls to just give in and — instead of deceptively trying to do away with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — join the Democrats in finding honest and straightforward ways to keep these programs funded.


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