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My time at TPM

My time at TPM is almost up. Instead of leaving with a long post cataloguing how I think the world should be, I leave this little slice of cyberspace by saying thank you: to the more than 1500 readers who responded to my query of Friday; to friends and sources on both sides of the Atlantic; to the scores of readers who e-mailed me with thoughts, corrections, and a few choice criticisms; and -- most of all -- to Josh for entrusting me with this incredible platform.

The hype about blogs is only building in intensity (Exhibit A: the front page of the business section of the New York Times today). While others -- many with big names -- will be jumping on the bandwagon, they will have a high standard to meet. Josh -- and TPM readers -- have set the bar for intelligent, reasoned, and researched discourse. It's been an honor to contribute, and I hope that whether you liked or disliked my thoughts, I provoked you enough to read my column at the New Republic Online, and from there we can continue this conversation.

Josh, over to you...

Now no one tell

Now, no one tell Josh’s wife that he sneaked away to post during his honeymoon. While Josh was posting from an undisclosed, but sunny, location, I was reminded of a much colder time: the weeks after the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. Democrats were devastated; pundits were gabbing hysterically about the dawning of “prime ministerial” government in the US. That December, I returned from England and had a conversation with the historian Fred Siegel, a friend and mentor of mine. Fred said not to worry; he wished control of the House of Representatives on the GOP as, eventually, it would turn them into what the Democrats on the Hill had become by the late 1990’s -- an out-of-touch, Beltway party focused on the needs of the donors who fund their campaigns.

In Slate this week, Jacob Weisberg notes that this prediction has come true. “Interest-group conservatism,” he argues, has replaced interest-group liberalism -- with all its accompanying pathologies. Weisberg’s piece underscores what many across the party have argued: that Democrats must seize the mantle of reform. Embracing a reform agenda -- along with developing a forward-looking public philosophy -- will not only rid Democrats of the worst excesses of interest-group liberalism, but put us on track to do what the GOP did a decade ago: win.

ed.note Josh Marshall will

(ed.note: Josh Marshall will be back Sunday evening. But he couldn't resist this one post from abroad.)

In the context of Social Security, what exactly is ‘solvency’? And just what are we looking for when we say we want to find it? I pose these questions because the president's new ‘plan' has placed them in a much higher relief for the following reason. According the Social Security Trustees' rather pessimistic estimates, in 2041 or 2042, the Trust Fund will run out and benefits will have to be cut by just over 25%. President Bush calls that ‘bankruptcy’. On the other hand, President Bush's 'plan' cuts benefits by about the same amount. And he calls that ‘solvency’.

Same cuts: one is a looming disaster, the other is an act of statesmanship. Go figure.

Now, there are some details and caveats. The Bush cuts aren't quite as big. He cuts a bit of a break for the working poor while reserving the full brunt of the pain for the middle class. On top of that he includes a private accounts-based phase-out plan and a ton of new borrowing. But then, as even the President's budget wizards now concede, his plan only keeps the program 'solvent' for a few more years. So it's not like it accomplishes much of anything anyway.

Yet none of this changes the essential logic of the Bush plan. And that’s where our attention should focus. If the issue is simply making sure that benefits remain equal to payroll tax revenues, that's easy. Indeed, we've already got that since the way the Social Security system is set up, benefits are automatically cut to the level of revenue coming into Social Security form payroll taxes and the Trust Fund. Just leave the damn thing on auto-pilot and it will remain 'solvent', automatically, from now until the end of time.

All the president has done is take the problem -- steep benefit cuts -- and redefined it as the solution. That’s not a plan or a solution; it’s a word game. And if we're really setting such a feeble standard, there are an infinite number of similarly silly 'plans' folks can cook up.

The point, I think, is that when people worry about 'solvency', their concern is not about something so trivial as a book-keeping entry. Their worry is that people like Social Security as it is today. And they want it to be there for themselves or, depending on their age, their children or grandchildren. Only there's a problem. And that is that in the second half of this century potential funding shortfalls could require cuts that begin to make Social Security into something very different than what it is today and what it was for those in the past.

Now, not every thing we want is possible in this world. And perhaps at some point some level of cuts will be necessary. But, as I said, I think they are what most folks want to avoid rather than being the goal, as seems to be the case for President Bush.

But, if changes become necessary, they are far from the only lever that can be pulled to put things back into balance. We could remove or limit the high-income-earners’ payroll tax exemption, the so-called ‘cap’. We could supplement Social Security with funds from general revenue. We could invest a portion of the Trust Fund in something other than Treasury bonds. We could nudge the retirement age up another year. Perhaps most immediately we could forgo the new round of high-income tax breaks President Bush wants passed – those which would re-pass or make permanent those from his first term. That in itself would go a long way toward solving the whole problem. Various mixes of these possibilities would solve the whole problem. And it is important not to forget that it is not at all clear that the problem will ever even materialize, at least at this scope, given increased productivity and immigration.

The important point is that for President Bush there’s only one solution -- big middle class benefit cuts. (And, of course, on top of that, lots more borrowing and cutting to create that Write House Holy Grail, private accounts.)

For most folks, that’s the problem. For President Bush, it’s the solution.

It’s his goal.

And that shouldn’t surprise you, since phasing out Social Security has always been what the president is after.

I am off to

<$NoAd$>I am off to the family homestead in the wilds of South Jersey. I’ll be blogging a bit from there. Before I do, allow me to pose a question to the TPM collective that would help immeasurably with a debate I’ve been having with some folks in DC:

If you have to read a long magazine article (such as a New Yorker profile), do you prefer to read it: on a website, in a printed magazine, printed from a website from a printer, or not at all?

If you could e-mail me at kenbaer17@hotmail.com with your answer in the subject line, I would be most grateful.

The business of politics

The business of politics in the US has kept me from posting on the politics of the UK, and I have a lunch meeting in a half-hour. So, here’s a quick wrap-up of the British elections.

By now, you know that Tony Blair and the Labour Party have won a historic third term, but with a reduced majority of 66 seats. The Tories gained 33 seats to garner 197, and the Lib Dems increased their total by 11 seats to 62. This is a historic win for Labour -- and while a lot of attention has been focused on the reduced majority, they are still, by far, the dominant party of British politics. The Tories have picked themselves off of the mat and regained some natural Tory ground in the southeast and London to bring them closer to respectability. But to put it into perspective, the Conservatives are still worse off than Labour was after the disastrous Michael Foot-led campaign of 1983. The Liberal Democrats had a good night -- and now have more seats than at any point in their modern history -- but the Lib Dems have yet to break into prime time.

What the Lib Dems did do was provide an outlet for Labour rank-and-file anger toward Blair over Iraq. This Blair government takes power with the smallest percentage of the vote in history (about 36 percent). As the Prime Minister said today (which is, by the way, his birthday), “I have listened and learned.” What he heard was the British equivalent of a Bronx cheer.

While these elections are interesting for any political junkie, they are important for us as Americans. First, the UK is our strongest ally in the world -- and especially in the war in Iraq and in the war against terrorism. This election sent a very loud signal to the British leadership, across all parties, that there is very little upside in being such a staunch supporter of President Bush. I believe that Blair’s support of Bush is both in the strategic interest of his country and springs from his deeply-held beliefs about the threat jihadist Islam poses to the world (see Philip Stephens’ biography on Blair for more). Yet, with about 50 hard-core Labour rebels and a diminished majority, Blair will have to walk gingerly when it comes to foreign policy. And if, as expected, he gives way to Gordon Brown in a year or two, British support for Iraq – or similar adventures -- will not be anything close to automatic.

Second, there is a tradition of intellectual give-and-take between our two countries (Thatcher and Reagan; Clinton and Blair). Last night, Blair lost a good number of New Labour shock troops, and his diminished majority will tie his hands when it comes to pursuing innovation and reform in the NHS and other public services. Also, there are those who may interpret this election as a defeat for New Labour; they should not. Blair got hurt because of Iraq, nothing else. If Labour did not undergo the modernization project that Blair helped initiate in the 1990’s, it would not be in government today. As a Third Way fellow-traveler, I hope that this election and the eventual ascension of Brown to Number 10 will not dampen the intellectual ferment on the left in Britain. As we Democrats rebuild and do so in a rapidly-changing world, we need all the help we can get.

In Rochdale just outside

In Rochdale, just outside of Manchester, Lorna Fitzsimons -- a Labour MP looking for a third term -- was facing a tough challenge from the Lib Dems. So, who did the Labour high command send to help? Karen Hicks, Howard Dean’s campaign manager in the New Hampshire primary and the field director at the DNC in the general election. Fitzsimons, apparently not well-versed in recent American political history, told the New York Times that: "Karen is my ace in the hole."

Well, the Lib Dem candidate, Paul Rowen, must have had a royal flush because he’s the new MP from Rochdale.

Word just came in

<$NoAd$>Word just came in that the far-far-far left, Islamist candidate George Galloway has defeated Oona King -- daughter of an ex-pat African-American civil rights activist and Jewish mother -- in the east London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow. Galloway is not just anti-war and anti-American, he is pro-Saddam. Read what James Forsythe wrote in the New Republic Online about Galloway:

Galloway, dubbed "Gorgeous George," has been an MP since 1987 and is regarded as one of the House of Commons' most gifted orators. He is also one of its most hardened leftists. "I did support the Soviet Union, and I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life," he told the Guardian in 2002. The signature issue of his political career, however, has been the Middle East. Even before he was elected to Parliament, Galloway managed to persuade his hometown of Dundee in Scotland to symbolically partner with the West Bank city of Nablus. Since Blair became party leader in 1994, Galloway has been a constant thorn in the side of New Labour. His support for Saddam--he earned the nickname "the member for Baghdad Central" and in 2002 he wrote of his experience on "the crowded dance floor of a North African nightclub ... dancing with Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister of Iraq"--stretched the relationship to its breaking point. In November 2003 he was expelled from the party for what Labour Chairman Ian McCartney described as inciting "foreign forces to rise up against British troops."

As Forsythe goes on to explain, a Galloway win could spark a backlash against Muslims as: ”it could lead many Britons to conclude that Muslims threaten the country's liberal political culture.” Galloway’s win is a loss for us all.

I have BBC coming

I have BBC coming over cable, and my former housemate from Oxford on the IM (his Scottish better half has generously surrendered him). And there’s been a lot of cool graphics and the swingometer has done things I never thought it could do. But so far, only a dozen or so results have come in and almost all of them are from safe Labour seats. What we’re seeing is that in the rock-solid Labour constituencies, turnout is down and there’s about a 6 percent swing to the Lib Dems -- but Labour still wins. Clearly, Labour supporters are punishing Blair. What really matters is what happens in the battleground, and the only marginal to have come in is Putney in western London (number 53 on the Tories' target list). The swing was 6 percent to the Tories. If that’s indicative of anything, it will be a longer night for Labour supporters than the exit polls led anyone to believe.

In 1994 Tony Blair

In 1994, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown met at the chic Islington restaurant, Granita, and hammered out the bargain that made Blair party leader and set into motion the rise of New Labour.

As the polls closed in Britain tonight, two of my favorite ex-pat journalist friends decided to honor the evening by supping at this famous eatery. Yet, Granita has since closed and is now a Tex-Mex place called “Desperados.”

Yes, the joke writes itself.

My margarita-swilling correspondents report that the BBC was there looking for comments, but the only people eating at a Tex-Mex restaurant in London on election day were other journalists and Americans. With nothing to learn, they scarfed down their queso and headed to the polling place across the street. The workers there told them that turnout was at about 50 percent -- way off from the usual turnout in the mid-60’s. Odds are that the Islington left either stayed home or voted Lib Dem. Not a good sign for that healthy majority Blair needs.

And this just in: the BBC/ITV exit polls predict a Labour majority of 66. Wow. Blair may be a desperado by the time dawn breaks.

The polls close in

The polls close in Britain in just under two hours. C-SPAN 2 will be running BBC One’s coverage of the returns, and if you like political theater, I highly recommend tuning in.

First, there’s Peter Snow of BBC and his swingometer (again, nothing to do with Austin Powers). Snow is an institution. He frenetically runs across the BBC set commenting on each seat as it comes in, while at the same time giving viewers the overall electoral picture. Backing up snow is the BBC’s graphics that put the red-and-blue maps of US networks to shame.

Second, election coverage in Britain is more reality TV than public affairs TV. In each individual constituency, all the candidates hear the results at the same time and in the same place. Gathered in what looks like a junior high gym or a fire hall, the candidates stand together on stage with big colored ribbons on their chests. Then, without any hint of inflection in their voice, an election monitor calmly reads the results. I’ll never forget in 1997 watching government minister after government minister see their political careers go down the toilet as upstart Labourites beat them (the shock on Michael Portillo’s face -- and on Stephen Twigg’s -- when the young Labourite Twigg beat the Defense Minister in Enfield Southgate was priceless). And all they could do was grin and shake hands.

All night, BBC will go from constituency to constituency to get the results. I’ll be watching and blogging the results as they come in.