Week In Politics: N.Y. Special Election; 2012 Presidential Race

Michele Norris reviews the week in politics with our regular commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times.

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NORRIS: While the president's been overseas, both Democrats and Republicans have been spinning the results of one special congressional election. At issue, the meaning of the Democrats' victory in the upstate New York race.

Senator HARRY REID (Senate Majority Leader): The message the American people sent yesterday was loud and clear. They said no to the Republicans' plan to end Medicare.

Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): The Medicare take away from this is that Democrats are happy to shamelessly distort and demagogue the issue to try and scare seniors to win an election.

NORRIS: You just heard Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. His plan to privatize Medicare became a central focus in the race in New York's 26th district. We also heard Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat. And joining us now are our regular Friday political observers to give us their take on all this, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): Good to be with you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Hello.

NORRIS: E.J., I'm going to begin with you this week. Was that the voice of the American people we heard out of New York this week, as Senator Reid asserted, or is this just a lot of political hyperbole?

Mr. DIONNE (The Washington Post): You know, people always over-spin special election races, but I don't think they were over-spinning this one. This was a very Republican seat the Republicans never should have lost. The Ryan budget, and particularly its privatization or voucherization of Medicare were central issues in this race.

The Democrat, Kathy Hochul, jumped on these issues as soon as Republican Jane Corwin endorsed the Ryan budget. And I think what you're seeing here is that Republican have been saying since the 2010 election, well, we have to do all these things, including the Ryan budget, because that's what the people said.

It turned out that a lot of the people who voted Republican were not part of that very conservative part of the country. They were middle of the roaders who had not bargained on the Ryan budget or Governor Kasich's program or Governor Walker's program. And they're sending a message and they sent a loud one when they voted for Kathy Hochul.

NORRIS: David, so E.J. is saying that this is a misread of a Republican mandate. The Democrats seem to be saying that they're doing well on these special elections at the House level, even at the state level. And the new DNC chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, said that this election turned on what she called the Republicans' "hardcore radical right-wing agenda." She said Republicans should take the signal, sit down with Democrats, start to negotiate some sort of Medicare compromise. Is hers a correct reading of those results? And is there a path to compromise here?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I don't think it's correct. I think the Republicans tried to do something brave, maybe in the wrong way. But, you know, people love their Medicare. The average couple pays in - at the average income - pays in about $150,000 over the course of their career to Medicare. They get out about $450,000 in benefits, so that's about $300,000 of free money. So, people love that.

If you ask people, should cutting Medicare be part of deficit reduction - 78 percent say no, don't cut our Medicare. Nonetheless, it has to be cut. President Obama tried to cut Medicare $500 billion or so in his health care reform and he got pummeled for it in 2010. And Republicans were happy to take advantage of that. Now, Republicans are saying, well, we got to cut Medicare and Democrats are happy to take advantage of it.

So the central message is, if you try to cut entitlement programs in order to reduce the debt, you'll get hurt. And that's what's happened and that's what's always happened.

NORRIS: Is it possible that members of both parties will pay a steep price here if this perception continues, whether or not it's true, that jobs creation is taking a backseat to gridlock over this Medicare debate?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I agree wholeheartedly that we ought to be talking a lot more about jobs than we are because there are almost 14 million Americans unemployed. And we've really gotten so obsessed with the deficit since the Republicans won the House that we've lost sight of that. The Republicans put together their - a set of refried, retread ideas that go back, you know, 20 years to say we care about jobs. I don't think that'll cut it.

But, I just want to say, on Medicare, this wasn't just about cuts on Medicare, this was about the Ryan proposal to fundamentally get rid of the old Medicare and turn it into subsidized private insurance. That just won't fly. That's different from trying to contain medical costs.

NORRIS: Fellows, I think it's time for our weekly check-in on the ever-growing, shifting, evolving, shrinking, expanding GOP field. This week, Governor Romney is in Iowa. Michele Bachmann says she'll have a big announcement soon - no exact date. And today, Governor Rick Perry of Texas says he's now considering a run in 2012. Perry is one candidate we really haven't spent much time talking about.

Should we assume that a governor from a big state will automatically shake up the candidate pool?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, he is from a big state, but that state happens to be Texas. And I think there was a general view among Republicans that governors of Texas have been tried and maybe they shouldn't go back to that well again so soon. He's also quite a conservative fellow on education, some of those things which will hurt him. He's also - the reputation is not the greatest campaigner on earth. So, I'm not sure Perry is flirting because there's a vacuum there.

I would say this week sort of belongs to Jon Huntsman. Among those who talk about those things, the former governor of Utah, his stock has suddenly risen and I would say he seems to have entered the big three of Huntsman, Pawlenty and Romney.

NORRIS: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: I agree with David that Huntsman is going to become the next darling of the Washington conventional wisdom, at least for a while. You know, Governor Perry spoke loosely about Texas secession a couple of years ago. Maybe he could run on a program to let all the states secede - and Massachusetts and Vermont might actually want to if he got elected. He's a very, very conservative governor.

But the Republican race now is like the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. Anybody can enter, anybody can win. And I think that the field is so cut up, Republican opinion is so divided that it's hard to rule out anybody as having a possibility of winning...

NORRIS: That's an amazing statement you made - anybody can win. Is that true?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I don't mean the general election, I do mean the nomination.

Mr. BROOKS: It's not true, by the way. Only Pawlenty, Romney and Huntsman can win. All the rest are in there for fun.

NORRIS: We'll have to leave it at that. Thanks to both of you, happy Memorial Day.

Mr. DIONNE: And you, too.

Mr. BROOKS: You, too.

NORRIS: That's David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post.

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