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05.23.11

The Ryan Plan: Short-Term Loss, Long-Term Gain for the GOP

The Democrats think they have the Republicans right where they want them for the upcoming vote in the Senate on Rep. Paul Ryan's plan for Medicare. But as Michael Tomasky notes, the GOP is focused on winning the long game.

On Tuesday, the Republican candidate in the reliably Republican 26th congressional district in upstate New York may very well lose a special election to a Democrat. The reason? Medicare. Specifically, Paul Ryan’s plan to transform it into a voucher program. A poll came out over the weekend showing Democrat Kathy Hochul with a four-point lead over Republican Jane Corwin, who is struggling to prove, in this low-turnout special election where seniors’ votes will presumably dominate, that she doesn’t want to finish off Medicare (21 percent of voters say it’s their top issue).

Meanwhile, Politico reports that the Ryan plan polled so badly in advance of the now-famous April 15 vote in the House of Representatives, when all but four House Republicans went on record supporting the plan, that “staffers with the National Republican Congressional Committee warned leadership, ‘You might not want to go there’ in a series of tense pre-vote meetings.”

So what are the Senate Republicans about to do? Back the Ryan plan—en masse! But wait: isn’t the Ryan plan dead? This is what most Democrats and liberals believe, and it’s true that the Ryan Medicare scenario is unlikely to become law. But it is far from dead politically. This should help the Democrats in 2012, but the odds are still decent that Ryan will strongly influence whatever deal is finally struck on Medicare, and Democrats and liberals ought to stop chortling about short-term politics and focus on the long game.

Here’s the background. Once Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid saw the outcome of the House vote on the Ryan plan, he immediately announced his intention to schedule a Senate vote. That vote will happen this week. Like last week’s vote on eliminating oil subsidies, which failed, this one won’t pass. That isn’t the point. The point, for Reid, is to force Republican senators to go on record supporting or opposing the toxic plan.

Only two GOP senators so far have said they’ll vote against it—Susan Collins of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts. Olympia Snowe is another plausible no. Her office didn’t return my call asking how she planned to vote. She’s a moderate but is facing a conservative challenge in the GOP primary next year, when she’s up for reelection. Anyone else? Until recently, one might have said Indiana’s Richard Lugar, but he too faces a conservative primary opponent. Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, officially no longer a Republican, is more unpredictable than before and could vote against Ryan.

One of two things will happen when the roll is called this week, says a conservative source monitoring the situation. Possibility A, slim in my view, is that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may decide not to play Reid’s game, and every Republican will vote against it. On the one hand this would give the Republicans the satisfaction of thwarting Reid’s gotcha game. But on the other, it still gives Reid a spin victory because then he (and all Democrats) can say, “Look, the Senate voted unanimously against this plan, it can’t be taken seriously.” To your average voter who doesn’t follow Senate inside-baseball, that’s a strong argument.

Possibility B, which McConnell seems to be supporting, involves Republican senators voting as they see fit. If that’s the case, a rather astonishing 43 or 44 senators will vote for this supposedly toxic plan that doesn’t come close to receiving 50 percent support in polls. Why?

First, it’s a consequence-free vote for most of them—if you scan the list of the eight GOP senators facing reelection in 2012, beyond Brown and Snowe, they’re all from red states, so voting for Ryan would likely not hurt them and maybe even help them.

In GOP circles, the Ryan plan is still powerful. Witness the fate of Newt Gingrich, who appears to have dashed his presidential hopes by daring to denounce it.

But second and more importantly, in GOP circles, the plan is still powerful. Newt Gingrich, notes my conservative source, proved this inadvertently when he denounced the plan two weeks ago. “It’s awfully hard for a dead plan to kill a presidential candidate, but that’s what happened,” says this person. “It’s not dead. It’s all anyone is talking about.”

Interestingly, Republicans in tough elections are staying far away from Ryan. George Allen, gearing up for his neck-and-neck senate race in Virginia with Democrat Tim Kaine, won’t take a position on the plan.  And Dana Rehberg, the GOP congressman from Montana who’s challenging Democratic incumbent Jon Tester next year, was one of the four GOP House members to vote against Ryan on April 15.

Even in an upstate New York district that Republicans should control without thinking about it, the Ryan plan is untouchable. But the vast majority of Republicans run in safe districts and states. They’re going to stand by it. There will likely be no Medicare deal before next year’s election—the issue is handier for both sides as a political football. So that means negotiations might not get serious until 2013. Assuming a reelected President Obama and a GOP House and (as most people think) a GOP Senate, that will mean that this dead plan will have plenty of supporters when it counts—in Washington, if not in the country at large. Democrats who want to protect Medicare had better keep this long game in mind. Republicans are.

Newsweek/Daily Beast Special Correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.