When Richard Nixon won his 49-state landslide over George McGovern in 1972, Pauline Kael, the legendary New Yorker film critic, was moved to observe: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon.”

All of us can have our vision distorted by the special worlds we live in, and what was a problem for Kael in 1972 is now an enormous obstacle for conservative Republicans.

Both the leaders and rank-and-file of the Republican Party devoutly believe “the people” gave them a mandate last November to slash government, including that big-government health care program known as Medicare. And never mind that many Republican candidates in 2010 criticized President Obama’s health care law for reducing Medicare expenditures.

More than that: They see their mandate as including an obligation to oppose any tax increases, period, even if more revenue is essential to balancing the federal budget in the long run. “This House will not support tax hikes,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said flatly this week. So much for a grand bipartisan deal on deficits.

How closed are Republicans to dissent from the sacred scripture of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan? When David Gregory asked Newt Gingrich on “Meet the Press” what voters would make of turning Medicare “into a voucher program where you give seniors some premium support,” Gingrich said they’d see it as “right-wing social engineering.” Poor Newt. He’s since had to repent in humiliating ways for telling the truth.

Then came Tuesday’s thunder out of western New York. Democrat Kathy Hochul won her surprisingly comfortable special-election victory in the very Republican 26th Congressional District, largely because of the early endorsement her Republican opponent, Jane Corwin, gave to Ryan’s budget and its Medicare proposals.

You wonder: Will Republicans realize that this is their Pauline Kael moment? Will they understand that the anti-government cries they think they hear from “the people” are the voices of no more than 20 percent to 25 percent of the electorate who constitute the die-hard conservative core?

And by the way: Hochul’s victory wasn’t just about Medicare. Her most effective ad argued that Ryan was cutting Medicare while promoting tax cuts for the wealthy. “The plan Jane Corwin supports would cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans,” the announcer intoned. “The budget would overwhelmingly benefit the rich. Kathy Hochul says cut the deficit but do it the right way: Protect Medicare and no more tax breaks for multimillionaires.”

Note to timid Senate moderates who race from the battlefield even before they smell gunpowder: Hochul ran against tax cuts for the rich and won — in a district John McCain carried in 2008 by six points.

Republicans might also notice that the voters’ retreat from their party is not confined to the 26th. As Washington Monthly’s always-instructive blogger Steve Benen noted, Democrats picked up formerly Republican state legislative seats in special elections this month in both Wisconsin and New Hampshire.

Democrats also rejoiced over the victory of Alvin Brown as the first African-American mayor of Jacksonville, Fla. Adam Smith, the political editor of the St. Petersburg Times, concluded that “Brown’s win showed the risks of fully embracing archconservative tea partyers” as Brown’s Republican opponent Mike Hogan did, “and suggested Republicans may face some fallout over the perceptions of Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature.”

Smith wrote that “the deep cuts to education that Scott and the Legislature worked on during the legislative session helped drive much of the campaign debate.”

Let’s see: Voters don’t seem to like cuts to Medicare, cuts to education, or tax cuts for the rich. So what are “the people” trying to say?

From the beginning, too many Republicans (and too many in the media) saw the tea party as a broadly based movement whose extreme anti-government views reflected the popular will.

This was never true. The tea party consisted of citizens on the right end of politics who were always there but got angrier and better-organized after Obama was elected. They crowded the polling places last Nov. 2 while progressives found other things to do. The tea partyers were joined in voting Republican by many middle-of-the-road Americans understandably unhappy with the state of politics and the economy.

But those middle-of-the-roaders never bargained for what Paul Ryan — or Govs. Rick Scott, John Kasich of Ohio or Scott Walker of Wisconsin — had in mind for them. Now they’re talking back. They’re not as loud as the tea party. But as Hochul’s victory showed, they’re starting to be heard.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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