NY 26: Jane Corwin and Kathy Hochul fight over which one loves Medicare more.

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May 20 2011 11:55 AM

The Ryan Referendum

Neither the Republican nor the Democrat in New York's congressional race is too excited about the GOP plan for Medicare.

Jane Corwin and Kathy Hochul. Click image to expand.
Jane Corwin, left, and Kathy Hochul, candidates for NY-26

WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y.—Kathy Hochul has arrived at an assisted-living facility in this Buffalo suburb, and she's brought the gift of gloom. She asks for a few minutes of time from the dozen senior citizens here, and small-talks with the ones who seem interested.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

"I've been married 73 years," says one of them.

"Seventy-three years!" says Hochul, bending over to talk to him. "I want to know your secret."

"Don't die!" he says.

She laughs out loud. "Don't die! Works every time."

The happy exchange segues nicely into her speech, which is—crudely speaking—about how if Republicans have their way, people will die.

"A couple weeks ago," says Hochul, "there was a law passed on Capitol Hill that turned back the clock to the 1960s. What it did was, it said no longer will our Medicare program be the way it is now. It ends Medicare as we know it. That's not me talkin'. That's the Wall Street Journal and all the major news sources."

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Four days from Tuesday's special election, Democrats are trying to close this campaign with the attack they've loved since Rep. Paul Ryan introduced his "Path to Prosperity" in April. The election is a choice: Vote for the Democrat and save Medicare, or vote for the Republican and start dismantling it for spare parts.

It has the makings of a totally issue-based election. And this campaign is basically free of personal attacks and character attacks. But that's not to say there has been an ideological debate over Medicare or entitlement spending. The Republican, Jane Corwin, answers the Medicare attack by saying no, seriously, she'll work twice as hard to make sure it survives. The first election since the Ryan plan passed the House isn't really a fight over the Ryan plan. It's about which candidate loves Medicare more—or more accurately, about how the other candidate loves it less.

The Democratic message is the easier sell, and Hochul is good at selling it. She's a local politician who rose through the ranks to become the clerk of Erie County, home to a nice plurality of voters in the 26th district. She's risen to that level while sounding exactly the way most of the people here sound, with a flat western New York accent and sentences that play some havoc with clauses and tenses.

"What it does," she continues, "is instead of having guaranteed health insurance, like we've all come to rely on the last 45 years, it says you'll have a voucher, instead. Now, they're saying: Don't worry, seniors! It's not going to affect you. It's only the people my age, 55 and up. But they actually did something that made your prescription drugs cost more. Current seniors would actually pay more for prescription drugs, and future seniors—and I hope to be a senior someday myself—will have a voucher program. I've gotta tell ya, I'm the candidate in this race who's gonna look out for your interests."

She wraps up and gets polite applause. She's won over the room, a little. There's one older lady who's murmuring about how she wants to keep watching the documentary about Mexico that Hochul interrupted. There's more applause. Hank Janicki, who will later tell me he's a World War II veteran who was relieved at the end "because Truman saved us," raises his hand. How does Hochul save Medicare?

"We have problems in Washington," says Hochul. "We have to cut our expenses." For example: "You know how much money we give a year to Pakistan? About $3 billion a year! They're not exactly our friends these days. You know where they caught Bin Laden? Yeah, right in the middle of Pakistan! The downtown area, practically. You're right, sir. I think their priorities are wrong. They're worrying about Pakistan and giving the people who had more some tax breaks."

I ask Janicki what he thought of the answer. "Eh," he says, "it was an answer." He's not excited. The Pakistan stuff came out of nowhere. Still, he's for Hochul now.