In the week since Bob Matsui's untimely death, I've tried to separate the painful issue of his passing from our aggressive coverage of the emerging Social Security fight.
But Matsui was and would have been central to this fight, as the Democratic point-man on Social Security. So his passing means Democrats, or specifically House Democrats, must decide soon who will lead the charge against the president's Social Security phase-out plan -- in terms of strategy, message and, very importantly, as their public (i.e., media) voice on the issue.
Now, I was a bit distressed yesterday when I saw Rep. Ben Cardin of Maryland, who was next in line in seniority to Matsui on the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, quoted on the Bloomberg wire on President Bush's phase-out plan.
Saith Bloomberg ...
Representative Ben Cardin of Maryland, a senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee who is being courted by Republicans to support the accounts, said he would find it difficult to support the plan if its impact on the deficit, which reached a record $412 billion last year, isn't reflected in the budget.
"If he doesn't show how he's going to pay for it, then it's not a credible proposal from the point of view of, I think, most Democrats,'' Cardin said.
Now, I don't know about you. But that struck me as a tad equivocal. On its face, Cardin simply seemed to say that he couldn't support a phase-out bill if its costs weren't accurately reflected in the budget. But most Democrats stand in a rather more fundamental opposition -- as in opposing any phase-out plan, and especially one that will require adding one or two trillion dollars in debt.
I'm sure Cardin will come around to the right position. But it's not exactly a rousing defense of the program. And if Republicans even have the slightest inkling that they can turn the Dems' Social Security point-man over to the phase-out option, as Bloomberg suggests, something must be seriously amiss.
On the other hand, just one notch below Cardin on the subcommittee is Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota.
To the best of my recollection I've never met Pomeroy or spoken to him. But a friend of mine who knows this issue and the House very well tells me that Pomeroy not only has a deep belief in Social Security but also a deep and nuanced understanding of the program. He's also someone who can make a reasoned but also determined and persuasive case for preserving Social Security for the future. As I've said a hundred times already, party unity is critical on this issue, as is organizing. But at the end of the day they are a means to an end. And that end is persuading Americans across the country the defenders of Social Security are right on this issue and President Bush is wrong.
[An added plus with Pomeroy is that he comes from a really red state, but seems eager for this battle to protect Social Security. It is important to demonstrate clearly that whatever may be case with other issues, Social Security isn't an issue that Dems from conservative or rural districts need to run away from. In fact, I think quite the opposite.]
In any case, Pomeroy seems like the guy for the job. Not the only one, mind you. There's plenty of work to go around. And -- God forbid -- I'm not saying anyone should leapfrog the seniority queue. But he should be front and center on the Dems' Social Security team and conspicuous on the shows. Not doing so might be a really big mistake.