Medicare Madness After NY 26 -- What Republicans and Democrats Are Saying and What it Means

The Republicans simply don't get it. The repudiation of the Ryan plan in the New York's 26th district special election was clear and unambiguous, as I have previously argued, and most Democratic and Republican leaders nationally have accepted that very fact.

Yet, with Republican leaders insisting that they are going to double down on the plan and "try to explain it better," it looks to me like the Republicans have been overcome by a collective desire to seize defeat from the jaws of victory for reasons that are hard to fathom or understand.

Senator Rand Paul had it right when he explained his vote against the Ryan plan in the Senate yesterday. He acknowledged clearly in the short term that the Ryan plan raises both the debt and the deficit and doesn't begin to rein in Medicare costs for years into the future.

Democrats en masse opposed the plan because it fundamentally alters, if not eliminates Medicare, something the new Pew/Kaiser poll shows convincingly voters don't want, no matter how the proposal is cast.

The Republicans have now given the Democrats an issue that my friend and fellow Fox News contributor Pat Caddell has argued could well give the House back to the Democrats. The possibility of that is certainly clear, but the Democrats themselves have taken at least steps to ensure that it doesn't happen.

Instead of coming up with a plan, as President Clinton himself has argued, that would rein in Medicare spending itself and recognize the American people fundamentally want slow, gradual but inexorable entitlement reform and a balanced budget, the Democrats have also decided to substitute rhetoric for policy and simply attack the Republicans.

While a number of alternatives to the Ryan plan are quietly circulating among Democrats, including one that would allow interstate competition on insurance purchasing, the party itself will almost certainly remain committed to the approach that the President and the Congressional leadership has taken-- attack, attack, attack, offer no policy alternatives, and brand the Republicans as failures and heartless.

It is unclear now whether the Gang of 6 is the Gang of 5, and whether they will come out with a bipartisan budget plan. But one thing is for sure, with Senator Tom Coburn having at least temporarily, if not permanently left the group, and with Senator Kent Conrad having proposed more tax increases than he supported back in December when he was one of the architects of the Bowels-Simpson balanced budget plan, it is clear that the Democrats themselves are moving in the direction of putting forward plans that have no chance of winning broad based support. And it is a great pity, because 11 of its 18 members did back the Bowles-Simpson commission report back in December, which offered a 3 to 1 ratio of spending cuts to revenue increases as a means of cutting 4 trillion dollars over 10 years.

To be sure, there are elements in the Bowles-Simpson plan that I find to be objectionable, such as the reliance on an unelected body like IPAB to trim Medicare expenses. But the overall direction and scope of the plan is exactly what America needs at a time when we are careening recklessly towards an even greater level of fiscal responsibility.

What we have seen in the last day or so in the aftermath of New York 26 is a hardening of positions rather than any apparent coming together to address our common problems about Medicare, health care more generally, or our overarching fiscal problems.

It is unclear now what the ultimate political impact will be, but the Republicans are certainly not winners, and the American people as a whole are definitely getting the short end of the stick once again.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist and Fox News contributor. His most recent book is "Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System" published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.