The GOP's 2010 momentum is gone, and neither party has a discernible edge
Last week's smartest observation came from Steven Law, the president and CEO of the Republican uber-PAC American Crossroads after Republicans lost the special congressional election in New York's 26th District.
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Law said, "What is clear is that this election is a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that 2012 will be just like 2010. It's going to be a tougher environment, Democrats will be more competitive, and we need to play at the top of our game to win big next year." Law is a former campaign manager and chief of staff to the most cold-blooded of Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He did that before directing the National Republican Congressional Committee and later working as general counsel for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Democrats who were so badly battered last year desperately want to see the special election results as having seismic import, ignoring angles and odd corners that three- and four-way special elections often have.
The total Democratic and Green Party vote was 48 percent, so more than half of the votes cast were for the Republican and tea party candidates. The argument that a significant number of tea party voters would have voted Democratic, absent their candidate, is unconvincing.
But you don't have to look far to sense that congressional Republicans have stepped in a deep pile of manure with their embrace of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's proposal to convert Medicare into a voucher program. Yet they seem to want to avoid looking at their shoes. When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said as much he was promptly branded a heretic and forced to apologize.
Law's observation and polling indicates the forward momentum Republicans enjoyed in 2009 and 2010 is over. We are in a jump-ball situation. Polling metrics show neither side with a meaningful edge in terms of favorability, generic ballot test, or party identification. It's not that Democrats have gained ground but that Republicans have dropped to their level.
While Ryan deserves credit for his willingness to step forward and get the conversation started on entitlements, he did his party no service.
With the pressing budget and debt ceiling fights, the Republican House majority already had its hands full. With Republicans holding just 47 Senate seats and a Democrat in the White House, the proposal had no chance of enactment during this Congress.
But tossing the plan on the table with little groundwork, with the public not prepped for the fight, amounted to a political self-indulgence that the GOP could not afford, exposing GOP members to attack and handing Democrats an issue when they really didn't have one before.