David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report writes:

Democrat Kathy Hochul’s victory in the NY-26 special Congressional election means less than Democrats are trying to spin but more than what many Republicans want to acknowledge. Hochul took 47 percent and a Green Party candidate took one percent, with two self-branded conservatives taking 52 percent, a result basically in line with the partisan structure of the district. The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index shows the 26th district, as presently configured, voting six points more Republican than the rest of the country, meaning leaning Republican but certainly not solidly so.

A Democrat winning a three-way race featuring a Tea Party candidate is hardly earth-shattering. Suggestions that as many as a third of self-appointed Tea Party candidate Jack Davis’s votes would have otherwise gone to the Democrat seem far-fetched, meaning that the idea that a Democrat would have won a two-way race is dubious. Indeed it is doubtful that national Democrats would have jumped into the race, as they did very late, had there not been a well-funded Tea Party candidate dividing the right of center vote.

Still, Wasserman cautions that the GOP should not ignore the risk posed by “a far-reaching Medicare reform proposal with little groundwork laid and when passage was nearly impossible.”

He also warns overeager Democrats:

Stoking the fears of the Medicare issue may well have legs for Democrats but the election is unlikely to happen in a vacuum, with nothing else going on. Prolonged and lingering unemployment, high gasoline prices and endless budget fights and wrangling over spending cuts will no doubt complicate the situation. It’s just as plausible that voters will take it out fairly indiscriminately on incumbents of both parties as it is that they will return to the patterns of 2006 and 2008.

There is also, as iconoclastic Democrat Mickey Kaus points out, a question as to whether the Democrats were smart to hold a vote on the Ryan budget in the Senate. He muses:

Was it a good idea for Democrats to kill off the Ryan plan by forcing a vote in the Senate? Once it’s clear the plan isn’t going anywhere, it’s not so scary anymore. Dems needed to keep the monster alive, no? … [S]wing-voting seniors can now go ahead and elect Republican Congressmen because it’s clear the Senate will almost certainly protect them from the Ryan plan the GOP House members have endorsed. … I’m not saying the Dems have lost the Medicare weapon. But the Senate vote has decreased the issue’s power–when it was supposed to do the opposite. It seems like a classic misguided consultants’ play for short-term media advantage.

And those trying to make the comparison to ObamaCare should remember: Democrats jammed the unpopular bill through on a party-line vote, giving Republicans the rallying cry, “ Repeal and replace!” The Democrats’ “They might try it again and we have nothing in the alternative!” isn’t all that compelling.

There are some experienced conservatives, such as Bob Tyrrell Jr. of the American Spectator, who think the Republicans should take ownership of this issue:

Congressman Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has taken on the biggest challenge facing America since World War II and the Cold War, our enormous entitlement and budget overhang. In a way it is a graver challenge than World War II and the Cold War, because cowardly politicians can duck it for a few more years. Then the bond markets and the credit raters will step in, and it will be too late for America. Our years of prosperity will be over. Possibly even our years of national security will be gone. Ryan has faced the threat manfully and he has the Republicans in Congress with him for now. . . .

Paul Ryan is going to campaign for his 2012 budget one way or the other. President Barack Obama has made him the most popular Republican in the country. The boob [Newt] Gingrich has seconded the notion. Ryan might as well go whole hog. Campaign for the 2012 budget and for the presidency. There are increasing numbers of conservatives and independents pulling for him.

My own view: Medicare will be an issue, but not “the” issue in 2012. The Republican presidential nominee will make the case that Obama has failed in his central tasks (jobs and the debt) and then offer an alternative vision. Recall that Bill Clinton won in 1992 by running against a “do-nothing” domestic agenda.

As for Congress, those who voted for Ryan’s Medicare plan would be well advised to explain what they voted for and why, and describe the path (entitlement meltdown) Obama would have us go down. And for those challengers, they have an obligation to tell the voters what they would do on Medicare and every other key issue if elected.

Finally, if unemployment isn’t significantly reduced in the next 17 months none of this will matter. Ask Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) just how hard it is to defend an economic disaster.