ARCADE, N.Y. — Kathy Hochul is a young, first-term Democratic congresswoman fighting for her political life in a solidly Republican district outside Buffalo, N.Y. Unlike most of that liberal state, this is Romney country; a poll last week showed the GOP candidate ahead of President Obama in her district by a whopping 12 points.
So how does Hochul hope to persuade Republican-leaning voters to cross partisan lines to send a Democrat back to Washington? One word: Medicare.
"Here's what they proposed," she told the senior citizens of rural Arcade at their Friday lunch in the village clubhouse earlier this month. "You are now going to have a voucher and you can go out and negotiate with the insurance companies on your own.... I heard that and said: No way."
Around the lunchroom, gray heads nodded in agreement. "I'm a Republican, but I can't support that plan," said Margaret Morgan, 85, this year's president of the senior citizens' club. "They say it won't affect anyone older than 55, but what about our kids and grandkids?"
"Senior citizens aren't big on change," observed Doug Berwanger, the Republican chairman of the Wyoming County board of supervisors, who attended the lunch. "She said what they wanted to hear about Medicare."
Hochul's GOP opponent, Chris Collins, is trying desperately to change the subject. He prefers to focus on a different word: Jobs. As a small businessman, he says, he knows how to get the economy moving again.
And that's a microcosm of this year's campaign, from the presidential contest between Obama and Mitt Romney down to House races in cities, suburbs and farm towns. Democrats know they can't run on the economy; the unemployment rate is too high to make any voter feel good about the last four years. But if Democrats can get voters to focus instead on the most draconian budget proposals made by Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), they think they stand a chance.
In Hochul's case, the combination of Medicare and her insistence that she's not a rubber-stamp vote for the Democratic leadership — she likes to point out that she voted for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, a GOP proposal that died in the Democratic Senate — has helped her run surprisingly well in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats, 40% to 32%. Last week's poll, conducted by Siena College for the Buffalo News and Buffalo's NBC television station, found Hochul in a statistical tie with Collins, 45% to 47%. Almost 1 in 5 Hochul supporters said they were Republicans. Unlike many Democrats, Hochul runs better among voters over the age of 55 than among younger voters.
Nationally, too, the Medicare issue helps Democrats, as long as it's framed around Ryan's 2010 proposal to reshape the medical insurance program into a voucher plan. (Ryan later modified his plan to allow seniors to opt for traditional Medicare, but they'd still use vouchers to pay for it.) A Pew Research Center poll released last week found that Americans who have heard about the idea tend to oppose it, 49% to 35%. Opposition is especially strong among those age 65 and older, with 55% opposed. Most voters don't know that Ryan has been a strong proponent of such a plan, though; some thought Obama might be the author.
On the other side of the battle, Republicans have attacked Obama for cutting $716 billion in future Medicare spending, charging that he is "gutting Medicare" — even though Ryan proposed the same amount in cuts in his own GOP budget plans.
Historically, voters trust Democrats to protect Medicare and expect Republicans to cut budgets — and those "party stereotypes," to use the political science term, die hard.
But there's evidence that GOP money arguments are having some effect. The Democrats' advantage on Medicare is much narrower than in earlier years. And Romney still holds a sizable lead among older voters, Medicare worries or not. For them, as for most voters, the economy is still a bigger issue.
Republican strategists say they don't need to win the argument on Medicare; they just need to "neutralize" the Democrats' historical advantage on the issue — so they can get back to talking about the economy.
But where does it leave the more important debate — the one over how to fix our ballooning benefits programs?
A year ago, Republicans and Democrats agreed that the growth in Medicare costs needed to be brought under control. That's why both Obama and Ryan included $716 billion in future spending reduction in their budget proposals — although they would have made the cuts in very different ways (Obama via bureaucratic cost-cutting; Ryan through the voucher plan).
Now, though, the campaign has turned many in both parties against cutting future Medicare spending at all — a position that, if they stick to it, would be fiscally ruinous, since the growth of Medicare spending is the biggest single driver of the federal deficit.
Mitt Romney says he won't make cuts. Kathy Hochul says she won't either. Chris Collins, her opponent, opposes the cuts too, and refused to endorse the Ryan budget. Obama can't disavow the cuts — but part of him may now be wishing that he never asked for them.
Nobody's willing to campaign for saving money from Medicare any more. It's the new third rail of American politics.
That's not much of an improvement.