And we're off ...
I had the text of the speech a bit in advance. But I intentionally didn't read it because I wanted to hear it first as a speech rather than in the written word.
And I found the choices imbedded in the speech quite surprising.
First, there wasn't all that much about Social Security, and quite little that was new.
As someone who is not at all neutral on whether Social Security should be preserved or dismantled, that struck me as a missed opportunity. It's not every day that even the president gets an hour with the American people, with all the pomp and ceremony reared up in his favor. Even the privatizers have a story to tell. And the State of the Union gives the president a moment of conversational intimacy with the American people. On Social Security, I don't think he made much good use of it. And there was little on Social Security at least that was memorable.
As a final point along those lines, I also thought he did little to weave a narrative about privatization into the other themes of his presidency. The whole second half of the speech (I wasn't watching a clock; but that was my sense) was about foreign policy issues that are distant from what the country will be debating in the coming months. They remain issues of deadly importance and high ideals; everyone can agree to that. But nothing was connected together -- no bridge from the issues and touchstones which won him reelection to the policies he now wants to enact.
A few other observations.
First, now we know how much phase-out the president wants: 1/3 of Social Security. He said so tonight. So at least that nugget of his plan is clear.
Second, there were a slew of bones tossed to the cultural right pretty clearly aimed at bringing them back on board the phase-out bandwagon. Again, it didn't seem woven together, all disconnected.
Third, the president is now saying -- and saying emphatically and militantly, with an eye on his critics -- that if you're 55 you're home free, nothing to worry about when it comes to phasing out Social Security.
One might observe that this is a rather unfortunate dividing in half of the country. If you're 50 today, you spent most of your highest earning years not only paying into Social Security, but advance-paying even more, under the 1983 Social Security Commission which put in the extra level of tax to build up the Trust Fund. Now you're hosed. Too bad.
The important point though is that this is simply not true. And the defenders of Social Security would be straight-up fools to let the president get away with a guarantee as obviously bogus as that one.
The president can say whatever he wants. But the truth is he's going to try to siphon off one out of every three dollars that goes into Social Security -- the money that goes to pay those benefits he's telling you 55-and-over folks not to worry about.
Remember, he says the program's in trouble in 13 years and bankrupt in less than forty as it stands now. And now he's telling people who are 55 and over that they can rely on the program with complete confidence even though, under his new plan, it'll have to make do with 2/3 of its current revenues.
Does those two facts compute to you? You think that might put a little stress on the system? Even if the president just decides to pull out the national Visa card and borrow a few trillion more dollars to make up the shortfall, that will just come back and hit the program in other ways and more than soon enough to hit people a decade from retirement. People who are 55 today will be alive in 10, 20, 30 and more years from now. And like so many of President Bush's promises this is one he couldn't keep even if he wanted to.
With Social Security phase-out, we're all in the same boat. Actually, let me rephrase that: With Social Security we're all in the same boat. With phase-out, it's everyone overboard and every man for himself.
"New Details Indicate Administration Social Security Plan Would Entail Several Trillion Dollars In Borrowing."
That and more just out from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
See it now.
(Tim, you could read it so quickly. And so many errors could be avoided. Pass it on to Fineman when you're done. Also, remember the CPI calculation debate and the wage or inflation indexing debate are two different issues. I'm just trying to help! I'm on your side!)
If we're not mistaken, tonight's State of the Union address (aka, the kick-off of the Bamboozlepalooza Tour) should knock the Fainthearted Faction and the Conscience Caucus into utter turmoil. And pretty much every member of Congress is going to be asked by some reporter somewhere what they think of President Bush's Social Security phase-out plan.
And let's be clear, that's what this is. The idea of phasing out only part of Social Security is just a con. The plan here is to get rid of Social Security entirely and replace it with a government system of private investment accounts in which everyone can sink or swim as well as they can manage.
If you don't make enough during your working life to save much, you're out of luck. If your investments go bad or you die young, you and your kids are out of luck too. On the margins there may well be a new system of elder welfare for those who can prove they would die or be without any means of support absent a government hand-out. But gone entirely will be the current Social Security system in which every American who pays into the system over their lifetime has a guaranteed bedrock of retirement security which can't be taken away ever, not as a matter of a handout or disgrace or pity, but as a matter of right to a modicum of comfort and dignity in retirement after a lifetime of work.
If you doubt that the plan is to get rid of Social Security entirely you are simply naive. Look at the structure of all the phase-out proposals. They don't really envision a hybrid system for the longterm. They are all designed to siphon money out of the system, weaken it, trigger the crisis President Bush now falsely claims exists and create an accelerating pressure to complete the process of phase-out.
If you think about it, nothing else would really make sense. If partial phase-out is a good thing, why isn't total phase-out even better? This isn't about solvency; it's about the ideology of people who don't believe in or approve of the near-universal, defined-benefit program America has had for seven decades.
That's the plan and that's what's at stake.
We could have an honest debate about whether we'd be better off with Social Security or a system of government-regulated 401ks in its place. But the president knows that's a debate he can't win. So he's trying to scam the public into helping him destroy what the vast majority want to protect.
Social Security can be put on the course to complete phase-out in the 109th Congress, or the effort to phase-out Social Security can be put to rest for decades. If a newly-reelected president, with compliant majorities in both houses of congress, and all the weight of his office put behind the effort gets stopped in its tracks by a battered, but recovering party like the Democrats now are, no one will try it again for a very long time.
So, tonight ... As I said, everybody's going to get asked about phase-out tonight. And we want to hear what you hear. We can only follow so many news outlets. We have our special email address still set up (firstname.lastname@example.org). So if you see some member of the Conscience Caucus going all wobbly and sidling up to the president's phase-out proposal, let us know. If others give it the thumbs down, let us know that too. We'd like to hear about it even if it's just existing members of the Caucus reaffirming their membership.
Same goes for the Dems. If someone starts to go wobbly, we'd really appreciate your telling us.
So we can make use of it in our efforts to cover the legislative battlein its totality, please give us as much detailed information as possible about when it was, where it appeared, and so forth. If possible, send us a link.
And watch the press. The president already got knocked on his heels for his 'crisis' malarkey. Will that affect the degree of credibility the media imputes to him now on related issues?
The White House has already signalled that a big part of the speech will be rolling out his new Social Security speech code. So if you see Tim Russert running away from the phrase 'private accounts' like it was the bubonic plague, can you let us know? Thank you. We'll be in your debt.
And if the dingbat neologism 'personalization' even crosses Andrea Mitchell's lips, can you tell us that too?
The Republicans have every right to use their own rhetoric to describe their own policies. But it's ridiculous for them to think they can force the press to adopt a new lexicon every time the pollsters come back to Karl's office with a glum face. And it is shameful when members of the press comply. So keep an eye out and let us know.
We'll be giving away 'Privatize This' TPM T-shirts for the top ten catches of the evening (ed.note: just remember that they have to go to the special email address to be considered)...
As we noted earlier, Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) of Arizona and Rep. Allen Boyd, the Dean of the Fainthearted Faction, held a press conference yesterday on Capitol Hill to unveil their Social Security phase-out legislation which they call the "Bipartisan Retirement Security Act of 2005."
They handed out a detailed summary of the legislation, a document describing its purported effect on women and another describing its purported effect on people with low incomes. They also put out this 'Short Summary' of their legislation, which we've posted here in annotated form for your reading pleasure.
Her own private Fainthearted Faction?
The Times-Picayune gives the run-down on Louisiana Dems and where they come down on Social Security phase-out ...
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who represents a state Bush won by 15 percentage points and is often a swing vote in the Senate, said Tuesday she had not formulated a position on private investment accounts. A spokesman said Landrieu would oppose anything that calls for benefits cuts or that increases the deficit.
Landrieu's legislative director, Jason Matthews, said she is unlikely to support letting workers divert a portion of their payroll taxes to accounts that they could invest on their own.
Matthews also said he has seen no sign that the White House is trying to build a bipartisan consensus.
"Where is the bipartisan solution? There are only six or seven (swing) votes, and we're one of them," Matthews said. "There hasn't even been a preliminary 'Hey, how do you do?' with anyone from the White House."
By contrast, the two other Democrats in Louisiana's House delegation, Reps. William Jefferson of New Orleans and Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville, said they were firmly against the creation of private accounts. The lawmakers said that no matter how they are structured, the accounts offer too much of a risk to retirees, many of whom are dependent on Social Security for their sole means of support.
Fainthearted Faction Dean Rep. Allen Boyd (D) of Florida, the Panhandle Poltroon, puts his cards on the table. More soon ...
Rep. Vito Fossella told senior citizens at the New Dorp Beach Friendship Club yesterday that he is against privatizing Social Security.
"Let me be clear," Fossella (R-Staten Island/Brooklyn) told over 130 seniors at the center. "I do not support the privatization of Social Security, I never have and I never will."
However, Fossella said he wouldn't rule out "exploring" with House lawmakers the concept of allowing young workers to set aside part of their payroll taxes into personal market accounts instead of contributing the money to the Social Security system.
Chris Matthews stumbles, then tries to get right with the president's Social Security Speech Code.
From last night's Hardball: "All these programs, one which will privatize this, personalize, to some extent, Social Security."
The Daily Scribble goes behind the scenes at the president's speech prep.