WASHINGTON - If the Democrats are counting on making a come back in the 2012 elections by demagoguing the Republican Medicare reforms, they'd better think again.
The No. 1 political issue for the remainder of this year and most likely in 2012 will be the lackluster, persistently high unemployment, Obama economy that Republicans will nail to the Democrats hide from Maine to California.
It remains to be seen whether the House GOP's proposal to have the government-subsidize private health care plans for people who turn 65 in 2022 has long term traction this year and next. But keeping that issue alive, after it was strongly rejected in the Senate this week, is problematic at best.
The Medicare plan -- part of a $4 trillion budget-cutting blueprint by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin -- was killed by Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans. And it isn't coming back. A new set of proposals will be needed to fix a popular but costly entitlement program that provides medical insurance for 48 million elderly and disabled Americans that faces insolvency in 13 years.
Democrats haven't offered any plan of their own to keep Medicare from going bankrupt. They're betting that all they need to do is attack Republicans for attempting to kill Medicare and they will regain many of the House and Senate seats they lost in the 2010 elections.
In other words, Democrats think they can regain the voters trust by running on an agenda that says we prevented the Republicans from reforming Medicare but we have no idea how to fix it ourselves, or, indeed, don't think it needs fixing.
That posture, a few Democrats think, is not only irresponsible, but politically disastrous.
As the Senate was preparing to vote on the issue Wednesday, former President Bill Clinton warned Democrats at a conference on the government's growing debts that they could not afford to 'tippy-toe around' Medicare. He cautioned his party against thinking they can exploit the issue solely for political gain, warning that 'We've got to deal with these things.'
But reforming Medicare to save it from bankruptcy isn't what the Democrats are thinking about right now. Scaring elderly Americans, and those who will be eligible for Medicare in the next decade or so, is the name of their game.
New York Sen. Charles Schumer is in charge of the Democrats' issues strategy in the Senate and he's telling his party that the key to winning back seats is by attacking the GOP for its budget plan to end Medicare as we know it.
No sooner did Democrat Kathy Hochul win a special election in a three-way race for an open Republican House seat in New York -- largely by running against Ryan's Medicare plan -- Schumer sent out an e-mail touting the 'power of Medicare' to defeat Republicans in future elections.
One of the chief reasons why Democrats took back a GOP district Tuesday, Schumer wrote, 'voters of all political persuasions clearly do not want to destroy Medicare.'
This is the strategy throughout the party leadership. In the House, for example, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, offered the party's perfunctory political line that Medicare 'needs to be on the table,' but made it clear that he and fellow Democrats have no plans to offer any reforms to save it from financial collapse. 'That is the same mistake that... Ryan made,' Hoyer told The Washington Post.
Notably, the GOP's major presidential contenders have remained at arms length from the Ryan Medicare plan, preparing to offer plans of their own.
Their strategists say privately that starting a fight over how to scale back medical benefits for the elderly is not the way to win back the White House in 2012.
In an earlier column, I said that Medicare reform should have been place on a separate track that assigned the issue to a special House and Senate task force to develop a bipartisan reform plan. And that can still be done now. One of the third rails in American politics can't be dealt with in the usual budgetary process, like cutting HUD grants.
Meantime, Republicans should begin escalating their firepower on the economy, clearly the Democrats' major weakness and President Obama's Achilles heel. Nearly 20 million Americans are jobless or underemployed, most small businesses are struggling, new jobs are being created at an anemic rate that economists say will not lower 9 percent unemployment to normal levels over the next two years.
A string of economic reports paint a gloomy picture of the third year of the Obama economy: Retail sales growth slowed in April, the smallest gain since last July; $4-a-gallon gas has become a hardship for 71 percent of Americans, according to an AP poll; home construction starts tumbled last month; and the Conference Board, an economic forecasting group, has lowered its index of economic indicators, its first decline since last June, saying future 'economic activity may be choppy.'
Then there is Washington's fiscal mess. Unless runaway federal spending is curbed, the nation's public debt is racing toward an unprecedented $20 trillion before the end of this decade, further endangering our economic future.
The White House, Charles Schumer and his fellow Democrats are irresponsibly silent about all of this.
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