Nate Silver on NY-26 and Beyond

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Nate Silver, blogger for The New York Times'Five Thirty Eight blog, discussed the outcome of yesterday's special election in New York's 26th Congressional district.

Time for an exit strategy?

Democrat Kathy Hochul scored an upset in New York's 26th congressional district yesterday, and the dominant narrative of the election has been whether to call it a referendum on the Republican proposal to privatize Medicare. Much is made of the fact that Republican candidate Jane Corwin lost an early lead over Hochul after endorsing Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-WI) controversial budget.

Looking ahead to 2012, Silver said that a handful of Republicans could take what happened in upstate New York as a preview: their votes already cast, mostly in favor of privatization, they'll have to face unfriendly constituencies and Democratic challengers with open shots.

All but four Republicans already voted for the plan and they're running in districts just like New York 26 (or more Democratic) next year. Six were carried by Obama in 2008. So they probably have to think about an exit strategy, but the collateral damage is done, both to those who already voted for it and those in the Tea Party that wanted to control the direction of caucus.

Silver also said this poses fresh problems for Paul Ryan, who has lead the charge that may endanger his party's hold on the House.

Ryan's standing himself might be little threatened...Is he the kind of guy who you want to lead strategy in the Republican party, versus someone who puts ideas out there that the party may embrace at times and may want distance from at others?

Medicare: the 'unforced error'

Adding insult to injury, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he won't whip up votes for the Ryan proposal in his chamber. Republican senators will be allowed to "vote their conscience," according to Silver.

The picture isn't pretty. Defections in the Senate, an ambitious budget that has no chance of passing—Silver said that the way the GOP took on Medicare may incur dire costs for the party without anything to show for it.

It was an unforced error, I suppose. The healthcare bill, most people think it had some pretty severe electoral consequences for Democrats in 2010. This didn't really accomplish anything directly; maybe it 'changed the conversation,' but it's a high risk to take for mostly symbolic gains.

What's a presidential hopeful to do?

The Medicare question plants another land mine in a 2012 Republican presidential field that's already crowded and seems prone to missteps. Corwin lost in NY-26; does that mean presidential hopefuls should shun the Ryan budget?

We'll have to wait and see, said Silver, who pointed out that the proposal could become a club once the debates begin in earnest.

Pawlenty and Romney have been pretty smart about keeping their distance and leaving wiggle room so they can reposition later. Then there are the Republican debates in a few months where real candidates attend and there will be pressure from those on the right to embrace this policy. More moderate Republicans like Jon Hunstman kind of fully embraced the plan already.

Going on offense, paying the price

Silver said the GOP would be making a huge mistake to assume that the Ryan bill is popular. "They have to assume it's somewhere between modestly unpopular and deeply unpopular," he said. 

Privatizing Medicare isn't much less popular than the health care overhaul was in 2010, and that's seen as a major reason why Democrats lost the House that November. So what's with the yearly back-and-forth pendulum motion of the American electorate? Can we not make up our minds, or is each party we put in power letting us down? Silver said this wasn't new (a similar stretch of elections occurred in the late 19th century), and that it's mostly symptomatic of a struggling economy.

Whichever party takes the more assertive role in trying to fix things, until the economy gets better, there'll be more blame than credit to go around. Right now it seems like Republicans might bear the brunt of that. They went on offense this year, and have taken a lot of votes in the House, but not on things the average swing voter will like very much, and they're going to pay a price. Does that mean losing the House entirely? It's a 50/50 proposition at best for Democrats.