The Liberal Ironist isn’t a fan of historical analogies; they always struck me as an excuse to point to a predetermined narrative to relieve oneself of the responsibility of engaged thinking and theorizing. But such a principle warrants exceptions–especially when the metaphor in-point can’t possibly apply literally. So, when I compare Congressman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) proposal to cut about $4 trillion from the Federal deficit while cutting taxes (which depends on sharply cutting long-term payouts for Medicare and Medicaid) to Pickett’s Charge, no one familiar with the Battle of Gettysburg can get the wrong idea; on the contrary, it invites consideration of Congressman Ryan’s earnestness and his naivete, and the likelihood that a lot of Republican careers will be sacrificed to his misguided notion of fighting the good fight on his own terms, rather than the terms suggested by the political terrain he’s contesting.
For readers who may be drawing an embarrassed blank at the moment, Pickett’s Charge was the ill-conceived tactical effort by the namesake Confederate General and 2 of his peers at the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg to break the stalemate of the battle by a hard charge of a range of hills held by a clever and dogged Union defense. On the morning of July 3, 1863 about 12,500 Confederate infantry in 9 brigades ran eastward through over 3/4 of a mile of open field towards the now-well-fortified and ironically-named Cemetery Ridge. Those infantrymen who actually made it through the onslaught of defensive cannon and gun fire to the Union positions had no chance of overwhelming them at close-range and little hope of counting on reinforcements; they simply had to retreat through the same 3/4-mile meat tenderizer. Over half of the Confederate soldiers who participated in Pickett’s Charge were killed in what in retrospect was an unnecessary and damaging gesture of resolve.
Wait, Pickett’s Charge was obviously an unnecessary and damaging gesture at the time; we just have this silly habit of assuming that professional strategists don’t do really stupid things when the prospect of final victory seems nearer than it actually is. In any case, Pickett’s Charge was the high-water mark of the Confederate advance in the Civil War, and it was a demoralizing loss that dramatized Confederate incapacity to continue that war.
So, how does this have anything to do with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan? Consider Tuesday’s special election in NY Congressional District 26. Formerly occupied by Christopher Lee (R-NY)–no, not the Christopher Lee who plays the villain in every other movie ever made but a Republican Congressman who resigned because of a scandal he could easily have avoided–New York’s 26th is a suburban and rural District between Buffalo and Rochester. Like most of rural upstate New York, it is very Republican and fairly Conservative. This is not the sort of Congressional District Republicans should have much difficulty holding.
But in the 1st week of April, Congressman Ryan proposed reconstituting Medicare for those currently under age 55 as a Federally-funded premium voucher for private health insurance plans, and breaking Medicaid (the Federal health insurance program for the poor) into block grants to go to the several States. The former proposal would hold down growth in Federal health care spending by forcing future generations of senior citizens (read: us) to put up with the same stalling and denied-coverage tactics that health insurance companies are notorious for pulling with the general public, purchased with a voucher payment that wouldn’t rise with inflation within the health care sector and thus would become less-adequate over time; the latter proposal would give the States the power to reduce Medicaid benefits for the poor. (While these proposals were called “courageous” by some, Ryan’s proposal for Medicare proposed to turn billions of dollars worth of currently-defined Federal benefits over to famously-defective health insurance companies, while his proposal for Medicaid masked a plan to increase the number of the uninsured over the long-term by punting responsibility for cutting benefits for the poor to the States. The Liberal Ironist doesn’t question Congressman Ryan’s motives, but there is something all-too-familiar for me to call Ryan’s proposals for these 2 entitlements “courageous.”)
Anyway, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted in favor of Congressman Ryan’s long-term budget plan back in April, setting up a showdown with President Obama that is still playing out amidst the debate over raising the Federal debt limit. This required Jane Corwin, the Republican candidate to replace Congressman Lee in this usually safe-Republican District, to weigh-in on Ryan’s plans for Medicare. She did–and said she’d walk the party line.
Her reward for this adherence to principle (or to health insurance companies’ bottom lines, indistinguishable in practice for Republicans) was an upset loss of the 26th Congressional District to Kathy Hochul, the Democrat. According to the New York Times, a Democratic candidate whose loss in Republican territory was initially considered an accomplished fact won the special election by about 47% to 43%, with about 9% going to a Tea Party candidate who thrice previously ran for Congress as a Democrat. Much as President Obama had done by August 2009 with the early Tea Partiers crashing Congressional town hall meetings organized to inform the public on the state of Health Care Reform, Paul Ryan seems to have kicked the hornets’ nest.
Considering both the inevitable central importance of health care as an issue and the rapid growth of costs within that labor-intensive and increasingly high-tech sector, we shouldn’t be that surprised by evidence of massive ideological shift and then backlash from the electorate as a result of attempts at radical reform of this cluster of issues.
Comically and tellingly, Congressional Republicans were no more-able to take a surprising loss philosophically than President Obama was an essentially predicted but massive one during his tense 1st press conference following the Republican wave in the 2010 midterm elections. CNN Congressional Producer Deirdre Walsh has reported that Congressional Republicans have admitted only that “they need to do a better job explaining (their agenda) to voters” and moreover accused the other party of “demagoguing” in advance of the election. The Liberal Ironist thinks that sounds familiar. Even Major General George Pickett (likely exasperated by insensitive or incensed questioners about the failure of his infamous Charge) took to responding flippantly, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it…” Damn Yankees and their dishonorable tactics of using guns and cannon to destroy an enemy that’s charging directly at them with lethal intent in their own country!
I’ve always thought there was something contradictory about those in national politics–whether Democratic or Republican–soapboxing about “what the American people want” when partisanship has kept the country deeply- and closely-divided for a generation. On the one hand these politicians hope to ingratiate themselves with a few flaky voters on the margins by pointing to decision of the majority as some kind of wise “General Will”–it is merely the decision of the majority–when it favors their party and then condescendingly assuming that the problem is failure to properly frame all their great ideas whenever the electorate happens to turn on their agenda. The past 2 years in politics have shown both elected and voting Democrats lurch to the left and their Republican counterparts run to the right–and both parties have recently been speaking (though thankfully, not acting) as though the sky were falling while at times doing whatever possible when given a large majority by the electorate to convince the opposition of the same.
It’s true that I attributed the Democrats’ massive losses in November 2010 to failure to address bad economic conditions rather than voter reaction to a progressive political agenda; however, the deepening sense of solidarity and zeal among the Republican base was largely a function of the Democratic agenda. Advance polling strongly suggests that Congressman Ryan’s proposed attack of the benefits of the current Medicare program sank Ms. Corwin’s Congressional bid. Both elite and base Republicans seem to have chosen fidelity to the Ryan plan to transfer Medicare outlays from seniors’ health care to health insurance companies as a loyalty test of sorts. They seem to have gotten high on the solipsistic notion that the entitlements have ceased being “the 3rd rail of American politics” simply because that notion is incongruous with the radical aspects of their agenda. Maybe it’s the choice of metaphor they don’t like.
In that case, how about this: The Republicans just sent a woman who was all-but-assured of a political career across an exposed field towards a heavily-manned and fortified ridge, and they were astonished to find she didn’t survive the offensive. Now Paul Ryan and assorted Tea Partiers insist that the problem is that they didn’t all dash through that field yelling “charge” loud-enough. The recent Senate vote on the Ryan budget suggests this is their thinking.
Or perhaps that’s what everyone in politics says the day after their party’s leadership was repudiated in a bellwether election, and even as the Liberal Ironist writes this the Republicans are looking for a way to settle a long-term deficit-reduction deal with the President. After all, the valley below Entitlement Ridge is no place for “mind over matter”-type conceits.