Thursday, July 14, 2011 | 2 a.m.
After flipping New York’s 26th District in a special election two months ago, national Democrats were sure they would come up with a surefire formula to win back the House next year: Medicare.
Democrats thought they won that heavily Republican district because they painted themselves as protectors of the social safety net against a Republican onslaught in the form of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget.
But now that senior Democrats — starting with President Barack Obama — have said they’re willing to cut a deal on Medicare to advance debt talks, it’s raising questions about whether their supposed silver bullet will work in the Silver State, the next stop on what Democrats hope is a march toward reclaiming a House majority.
As of Wednesday, Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District is taking center stage in the Democratic Party’s efforts to take back the House (Janice Hahn held onto California’s 36th District for the Democratic Party in a special contest Tuesday night; the next elections up are Nevada’s 2nd and Anthony Weiner’s former seat in New York, both scheduled for Sept. 13).
The Nevada seat has never been held by Democrats; it’s considered redder than the seat Democrats flipped in New York. The party figures that if it can repeat that sort of upset in Nevada, it will gain momentum heading into the 2012 campaign.
But concerns are percolating that when the president started lecturing progressives on the need to make cuts and changes to Medicare, it dulled what was supposed to be Democrats’ best message.
“If you’re a progressive who cares about the integrity of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid ... then we have an obligation to make sure that we make those changes that are required to make it sustainable over the long term,” Obama told reporters in a news conference Monday on the debt talks.
The push is conditional: Democrats are only willing to pare back Medicare and other entitlement spending if they get a grand bargain in the ballpark of $4 trillion, a proposal Republicans squarely oppose.
Democrat Kate Marshall and Republican Mark Amodei may not be voting in Washington, but their campaigns for the 2nd District seat are tied to the debt talks and budget negotiations.
“Kate Marshall has to wear the Obama/Reid failure record as well as her own failed record,” said Amodei spokesman Peter DeMarco, who said Republicans would “gladly engage” Democrats on Medicare. “The reality is that Nevadans are too smart to be fooled by more Democrat scare tactics.”
But Zach Hudson, spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Party, said even if Democrats in Washington agreed to make certain reductions in Medicare — such as raising the age of eligibility or reducing the allocation for the program — the distinction between the parties’ positions on Medicare would still be stark.
“I can’t envision any Democrat suggesting anything anywhere near to what the Ryan budget does,” Hudson said. “There’s a difference between raising the age of eligibility and entirely doing away with a program.”
The Democrats’ line on the Ryan budget has been that it “ends” Medicare; a characterization Republicans vehemently dispute: They say they’re saving it.
Amodei has embraced Ryan’s plan, saying last month: “I like a lot of what he has to say in terms of Medicare,” and that “I need to cozy up to Paul Ryan and give him whatever support he needs.” Democrats have also characterized Amodei’s voting pledge to “not increase the Obama debt limit” as a bid to curtail Nevadans’ Social Security checks — which the government may have to stop paying if faced with default.
Republicans are quick to cast Marshall in equally negative light for her positions on what’s going on in Washington.
“You’ve got two clear choices: Kate Marshall, who’s hand-picked by Harry Reid, will look for more spending, a clean raising of the debt ceiling, and raise taxes,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Tyler Houlton. “We have to take both candidates at their word.”
Marshall or Amodei could end up casting important votes on the fate of Social Security and Medicare. If Congress does not come up with a long-term solution to address the debt limit in the next three weeks, Medicare and Social Security likely won’t be part of the equation, making them topics ripe for consideration as part of the fiscal 2012 budget-setting process. That isn’t likely to be complete much before the Sept. 30 deadline — at which point whoever wins Nevada’s 2nd District could be in that seat, making their pledges matter.
But for her part, Marshall appears to be leaving herself the option to criticize whatever deal emerges.
“I do not support balancing the budget on the backs of our nation’s senior citizens by cutting their Medicare and Social Security,” Marshall said in a statement. “This election is about what Nevadans want, not Washington insiders.”
The timing of Marshall’s race — a full 14 months before the general 2012 election — has given her the luxury of being able to take shots at the president and her party, and she has availed herself of the opportunity: calling Obama’s health care policies “flawed” and complaining that he hasn’t done enough to create jobs.
Marshall wouldn’t be the only Democrat openly protesting the president’s willingness to put Medicare on the table. Although she’s part of the negotiating team, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has also been playing an outside game, corralling various members of her caucus to state that “we will not support cuts” to Social Security and Medicare.
But from the top, Democratic campaigners are doing their utmost to cast the party as united and unchanged, saying there is no division in the ranks on Medicare — and the only distinction to be made is between Republicans and Democrats.
“We will negotiate improving Medicare, strengthening Medicare, and reforming Medicare,” Democratic National Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Israel said. “For as long as Republicans continue to press to reduce or end Medicare, it will be our No. 1 issue.”