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Buffalo Lessons for GOP: Demagogue Entitlements

Republicans are licking their wounds this morning after a stunning loss in the special election for New York’s 26th Congressional District. While Kathy Hochul’s win was still due in part in to the presence on the ballot of a third party false-flag Tea Party candidate, in reality a Democrat who helped siphon votes from the Republican, there’s no denying that the result could be a momentum changer for the national parties.

In case anyone missed the point the Democrats were trying to make last night, the crowd at Hochul’s jubilant headquarters chanted “Medicare, Medicare” to emphasize the fact that their party’s successful effort to demagogue the issue of Medicare reform. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s visionary reform plan was attacked relentlessly as a GOP effort to throw grandma off a cliff, and it would be futile for Republicans to deny that it worked to some extent. Hochul did better than recent previous Democratic candidates (including this year’s “Tea Party” candidate) as well as President Obama in this generally Republican district so the Dems have a right to crow.

Republican incumbents who voted for Ryan’s plan should expect to get the same treatment. But while Jane Corwin, the hapless GOP loser has admitted that she was slow to pick up on this trend and late in answering back, other Republicans had better not make the same mistake. The question is what can they do about it?

The answer is fairly simple. Fight fire with fire.

Instead of adopting a lame defensive posture as Corwin did, Republicans are going to have try and hang President Obama’s own Medicare reform proposal around the necks of Democrats. Since the consequences of Obama’s plan are far more draconian than those of Ryan’s, the challenge for GOP candidates in the coming year will be to demand that Democrats either support or disavow Obama’s scheme the way Corwin was tied to the Ryan proposal.

But a cynical tit-for-tit rhetorical exchange to balance out the demagoguery isn’t enough for Republicans. They must also go on the offensive about the bigger picture here: the plague of entitlements that can sink the country. GOP candidates must not be shy about labeling their opponents as defenders of a sick status quo that is bleeding money from the national exchequer. Fear of the elderly’s being treated unfairly must also be answered by appealing to the national fear of debt and loathing of taxes. In 2010, Republicans successfully harnessed those sentiments to take back Congress. If they don’t return to that theme, Nancy Pelosi will be taking back the gavel in January 2013.