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ROBINSON: A Medicare moment for GOP

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the architect of his party’s radical plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program, gave a lesson Sunday in stating the obvious: “I don’t consult polls to tell me what my principles are or what our policies should be.” I’d suggest that Republicans with less disdain for public opinion might want to check out the height of the cliff from which Ryan would have them leap.

What concentrates the minds of GOP strategists and candidates — or ought to — is the spectacle in New York’s 26th Congressional District near Buffalo. It’s a solid Republican constituency, one that Chris Lee won last year with 74 percent of the vote. Alas, Lee resigned after a website published a bare-chested beefcake photo he had sent to a woman he met through Craigslist.

This led to a special election Tuesday. The Republican candidate, state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, who has all the right credentials, was expected to win easily. But Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul pulled a big upset and returned the seat to Democratic hands.

What should worry Republicans is that the biggest issue in the campaign — practically the only issue — was Ryan’s Medicare plan. Corwin supported it, Hochul opposed it, and the GOP lost a race that shouldn’t have been close.

The national Republican Party poured buckets of money into the race, allowing Corwin to outspend Hochul by more than 2-to-1, and grandees such as House Speaker John Boehner campaigned on her behalf. The fact that Corwin lost is a dire omen for her party. Have I mentioned that all but four House Republicans have not just endorsed, but actually voted for, the Ryan plan?

Anyone could have noted that the Corwin-Hochul contest was complicated by a third candidate, Jack Davis, running on the tea party line. The Pollyanna-ish view was that there were effectively two Republicans in the race, splitting the GOP vote. This was mitigated, however, by the fact that Davis has run for the seat twice before, in 2004 and 2006, and come pretty close to winning — both times as the nominee of the Democratic Party. The perhaps more realistic view was that there were effectively two Democrats in the race, and that if Davis were not running, Hochul might have done even better.

Is the Medicare issue really that toxic? Newt Gingrich clearly thought it was, or else he’d never have called it “right-wing social engineering” and gotten himself in such trouble with his fellow Republicans. Even now, after a week of rhetorical beat-downs from GOP opinion-makers and busy signals from big-time donors, he’s still trying to find a way to support the Ryan plan while leaving some sure-to-be-needed wiggle room.

Leading Democrats, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, think the Ryan plan is toxic, too. Reid plans to hold a vote in which Republican senators will have to go on record as supporting, or opposing, the House-passed budget bill — which includes the Ryan plan to fundamentally transform Medicare as we know it. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, seeing the trap that Reid has laid, says each GOP senator will be free to vote his or her conscience.

Many Republicans, sensibly, are eager to change the subject. This would be tough to do under any circumstances, given that the party has made the deficit its central issue. Moving along will be much harder with Democrats doing everything they can to keep the Ryan plan in the news — and with Ryan and other true believers still convinced that giving vouchers to senior citizens, putting them at the mercy of the private health insurance market, is a dandy idea that surely will catch on.

It won’t. Americans oppose Medicare cuts by overwhelming margins.

There are good reasons to believe the Ryan plan would have little, if any, real impact on the deficit. There are excellent reasons to believe it would do basically nothing to hold down soaring medical costs. And there is no reason to believe it is good politics — except for Democrats who explain to voters what Republicans prescribe for their golden years.

Eugene Robinson is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. Email him at eugenerobinson@washpost.com. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/eugenerobinson.