Democrats are pumped up about their May 25 special election victory in New York’s 26th congressional district. It has been a historically Republican-leaning district, but the Democrat won, the party believes, by pounding the GOP candidate’s connection to a House Republican plan to change Medicare to a voucher system.
There is no doubt most voters will be wary of a candidate whose party wants to tinker with Medicare. But Democrats may be over-stating the reason for their victory. A third, tea party-backed independent candidate also was in the contest, probably siphoning votes away from the Republican candidate.
This scuffle hints at how the 2012 presidential and congressional elections will develop. Democrats will scare voters with visions of the GOP taking a butcher knife to Medicare and Social Security. Republicans will frighten voters with charts showing record deficits. Sadly, both strategies will be effective, but not productive in solving these real problems.
Important truths lie beneath both strategies. The deficit, though acceptable for the early part of the recession, must be addressed. Spending cuts must be part of the plan. Eliminating tax breaks and whittling down the cost of programs like Medicare and Social Security must be on the table. But, this must be done in a smart way, which is why Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe are to be thanked for voting against a House budget last week that relied too heavily on selected cuts and would have significantly revamped Medicare.
At a bipartisan forum on debt on May 25, former President Bill Clinton was surprisingly candid. “The Democrats are going to have to be willing to give up maybe some short-term political gain by whipping up fears on some of these things if it’s a reasonable Social Security proposal or a reasonable Medicare proposal,” he said.
In a private moment with Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican writing the budget which includes the vouchers-for-Medicare provision, Mr. Clinton was caught, apparently unaware he was being recorded, speaking even more candidly.
“I’m glad we won this race in New York. But I hope Democrats don’t use it as an excuse to do nothing,” he said. Rep. Ryan, also unaware of the camera, replied with a pessimistic assessment: “My guess is it’s going to sink into paralysis… We knew we were putting ourselves out there,” with the Medicare plan, “but you’ve got to start this… You’ve got to get this thing moving.”
The best way to “get this thing moving” — real compromises on new tax revenue and spending cuts — will come when both parties drop their weapons. But how, when each believes they have something that will deliver the decisive blow?
It’s been done before. A small group of respected and powerful representatives and senators from both parties need to gather behind closed doors and hammer out a deal. It likely will include spending cuts to favorite social programs and the military. It will include tweaks to Medicare and Social Security, the latter tied to financial need. And it will include a return to higher tax rates for the wealthiest of Americans.
Then, the “gang” of 12, 15 or 20 must stand, arms locked, and say they will support the compromise plan. The gang might include moderate and well-regarded people like those in Maine’s congressional delegation. Such legislative leverage has worked before. It must again.