Chatham and its environs were most fortunate to have been spared the tornadoes that recently ripped through parts of neighboring Massachusetts. Only God knows why, but The Weekender, at least, knows the source of those swirling winds. They emanated from the incredible spinning and demagoguery that followed the May 24 Special Election to replace Shirtless Chris Lee from New York’s 29 minus three. The winner in the 26th Congressional District was the Democratic candidate, Kathy Hochul, formerly Erie County Clerk, who with 47 percent of the vote, defeated three rivals: Republican Assemblywoman Jane Corwin (Erie/Niagara); Jack Davis, a perennial candidate who this time secured a “Tea Party” slot; and Ian Murphy on the “it’s not easy being the Green Party Candidate” ballot line.
As was already becoming the case before the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, most of the money spent in the campaign came from outside the district. But that so-called “soft money” used to be funneled into close or crucial contests by the parties themselves through vehicles like the Republican and Democratic congressional and senatorial campaign committees. Now that the “Roberts Court” has exalted unlimited corporate and organizational campaign spending (along with assault weapon ownership) to the top of the list of how it prioritizes components of the American Constitution and dream, right and left wing groups, like “American Crossroads” and “House Majority PAC,” send more money than the parties themselves into these remote elections from well-healed, but unknown donors. The Supreme Court also backs the ability of corporate, union and other political action groups to obscure the ultimate source of their money.
When just around midnight on May 24 the minor dust of the campaign settled with Kathy Hochul the winner, the major storms and spinning began, with both parties telling the electorate and the rest of America gross distortions about what had just happened and what it presaged for the 2012 elections.
The Democratic distortion was that the Special Election was a referendum on the Republican’s plan to end Medicare “as we know it” and on the entire federal budget proposal advanced by Paul Ryan, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin who currently chairs the House Budget Committee. The Republican distortions (there were two which conflicted) were that the vote wasn’t about any of “that” while also saying the vote reflected the Democrat’s shameless willingness to prey upon old people’s fears about losing their Medicare coverage. The truth, quite simply, was that the victory of Democrat Hochul in a strongly Republican district occurred because Tea Party candidate Davis siphoned off enough Republican votes from Corwin to hand the election to Hochul. A similar scenario plays out frequently with third parties that garner substantial votes. In New York alone, our memory reminds that we can thank three-way races for the defeat of two truly great Republican U.S. senators and the election of two regrettables in three-way contests where Jacob Javits was ousted by Al D’Amato and Charles Goodell by James Buckley.
If there is any truth in the interpretation that each party is grafting on to these recent election results in New York’s 26th (and there is a little bit), it is that Medicare played a part in the margin of victory, though not the result. Without Davis’ candidacy, Corwin would have won despite the Ryan Budget proposal, which would, in fact, eliminate Medicare for future retirees, though not for “baby boomers” like me who will claim their benefits in the next several years. Corwin would have won, but it would have been very close and uncomfortably so for a historically solid Republican district. Medicare played a part in the election by getting some Republican registrants to vote Democratic and by increasing voter turnout — always a very good thing.
The true Republican position on Medicare, at least as evidenced in the Ryan budget proposal backed by a vast majority of Republicans in both houses of Congress, is that it should be replaced by a patchwork of privatized and voucherized plans. The cynical part of this plan is that it exempts current and imminent retirees like The Weekender, assuming that we care little about the generation that will retire right after us, to say nothing about how little we care for our children’s retirements.
The truth about the Democratic position on Medicare is that they know the plan is unsustainable for very much longer under current rules, but that they are willing to exploit fear about the program’s demise rather than stepping up to the plate now to make some real adjustments designed to assure the plan’s survival and vitality. In 2009, the Democratic Administration abandoned what most of the voters who elected President Obama truly wanted, a universal single payer health insurance plan. The easiest way to have achieved that was by extending Medicare to the entire population. By doing so, much of the unsustainability of current Medicare would have been remedied.
Medicare, by definition, currently serves the heaviest consumers of health care. By extending Medicare to young, healthy and infrequent consumers of expensive health care, one of Medicare’s biggest flaws would be corrected. Those truly knowledgeable about health care economics understand that the wisdom of universal coverage, through mandate if necessary, was recognized by Mitt Romney before one of his many conversions on matters of public policy and conscience.
Medicare is not sustainable under current rules. The average recipient will withdraw much more than she/he has contributed into the fund during their working lives. The fact that retirees now confront choices about Medicare Parts B, C, D and probably soon “Z” and also frequently must buy various private supplemental plans to fill other gaps in basic Medicare coverage, gives strong indication that the whole plan needs to be fixed in conjunction with a major restructuring of how health care is delivered and paid for in our nation.
The real story and pity emanating from the Special Election in New York’s 26th is that it will be misused by both parties to continue dissembling to voters and that politicians will continue to refuse to enter into serious discussions about what must be done to preserve a viable Medicare system in the United States — at least until after the 2012 elections — when, unfortunately, the results of those hundreds of races may be spun and twisted yet again. The cure for all this is the panacea constantly hawked by The Weekender in these columns, a well-informed electorate.