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What is it they

What is it they say about the five questions every journalist should answer in every news report? Who, what, when, why, where, right?

The intriguing David Kirkpatrick piece in today's New York Times about a group of Hollywood celebrities intervening in the Rhode Island Senate race kinda flunks that test.

Yeah, the "what" is explained pretty thoroughly: the letter blasts the likely Senate candidacy of Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, for his "radically anti-choice" views. And it endorses the candidacy of Langevin's potential Democratic rival, R.I. Secretary of State Matt Brown.

But the "who" and "where" part gets kinda murky. While the identity of the group's leader, Victoria Hopper (His Infernal Majesty Dennis' spouse), is clear, you have to read down seven graphs to infer they are all women. And you never learn the name of the letter's addressee. Is it an open letter? A letter to the Democrats of Rhode Island? A letter to the alleged ringleader of the conspiracy to tap Langevin, Democratic Senatorital Campaign Committee chair Sen. Chuck Schumer? (If it was addressed to Shumer, I'm sure he was surprised to see himself described as a "conservative Democrat.")

I obviously don't know the answer to that question, but it raises another one: What did the signatories to this missive hope to accomplish?

I have no particular brief for Langevin, and I do have a favorable impression of Matt Brown. Moreover, I do not think you have to nominate pro-life candidates to convey a more inclusive message on abortion or other cultural issues. And finally, I fully acknowledge that any group of Democratic women, of whatever size or provenance, has the moral standing to address the issue of their own right to choose in whatever forum they prefer.

But given current perceptions of the Democratic Party, I can't see it does a lot of good for Hollywood muckety-mucks to instruct Democrats on the other side of the country about the candidates they are permitted to run for office, even the day after Oscar Night. Let the Democratic voters of Rhode Island sort this one out.

One of the most

One of the most amusing features of the Bush presidency has been W.'s frequent pretence that he has no influence at all over his party in Congress. Here's a guy who's been relentlessly marketed as a World-Historical Figure, a veritable Collossus astride the currents of world affairs, who has terrified al Qaeda into inaction and is now busily extending freedom and democracy to the benighted corners of the globe. Yet when it suits his purposes, Bush acts like a ninny-faced weakling in terms of his clout with GOPers on the Hill.

Usually he peforms this act when he wants to endorse a popular initiative without running the risk that it will actually be written into law, such as the extension of the Assault Weapons Ban or the tougher provisions of Intelligence Reform. According to Connolly and Balz in today's Washington Post, however, he's using a variation of this pose in negotiations with the nation's governors over the future of Medicaid: do it my way, or those Bad Elephants in Congress will do Bad Things to you.

The Budget Budget, as you may recall, proposed $60 billion in Medicaid "savings" through action on ill-defined "loopholes" in the program. In the run-up to Bush's personal meeting with the governors, his HHS Secretary, Mike Leavitt, suggested that the states should cut a deal with the administration lest Congress find some really hurtful ways to come up with the "savings." This is probably a thinly veiled reference to that hardy perennial of GOP budgeting, a Medicaid "cap" that would just arbitrarily limit federal spending on the program and let states cut services or eligibility to make ends meet. Indeed, the administration itself embraced the "cap" blame-shift as recently as last year.

Reading beetween the lines, the "deal" Bush and Leavitt seem to want is an agreement to crack down on states that are allegedly gaming the program for extra dollars, and to crack down on middle-class families who are allegedly gaming the program by shifting assets around to qualify for long-term nursing home care under Medicaid. To be sure, the administration will offer states plenty of new "flexibility" in exchange for helping Bush deal with his deliberately engineered budget crisis, but it will be flexibility to cut benefits, not to improve health services. Indeed, the other weapon the administration has in its quiver is to go hog wild with Medicaid waivers to let Republican governors like Haley Barbour and Jeb Bush do their worst.

Fortunately, there doesn't seem to be any big impetus among the govs--especically Democratic govs--to cut a deal. And the best comment on the whole Bush gambit was by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano: "What I'm worried about is this is all about the budget and not about health care reform."

Since we are talking about the country's main health care safety net program, which is the last line of support keeping millions of low-income families from joining the already-obscene levels of the uninsured, that's the heart of the matter.

So Bush comes home

So, Bush comes home from his big European trip, and what's the first thing out of his mouth? You got it: time to push forward on Social Security! He stated his intentions with the air of a guy who's just picking up the first thing in his inbox after being away from the office a few days.

This is, of course, the immutable M.O. of this particular politician. Going back to his career in Texas, his approach to any big issue is to stake out his maximum position, and then repeat it endlessly until it's time to count the votes. Then he'll cut a deal, flip-flop shamelessly, or change the subject, depending on what he can and can't get.

Down south where I'm from, this tactic is known as the Redneck Theory of Seduction. It involves repeating one's demands tirelessly, in hopes that the victim will succumb out of sheer fatigue. It's a subtle as a hammerhead shark.

I really hate to

I really hate to start this guest-blog gig with bad news, but in case you missed it, Iraqi insurgents just pulled off their deadliest suicide bombing yet, killing at least 125, in an attack apparently aimed at police recruits.

Im gonna turn over

I'm gonna turn over the keys to this operation for a couple days. So this is a sign-off post. But before I go, a few points.

First off, every sign I see tells me that Sen. Lieberman is looking to cut a deal of some sort with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina and thus with the White House. It would be a kinder, gentler phase-out. But phase-out just the same.

Individually, Lieberman's vote isn't that consequential. At present I don't think the White House could get majority votes for a phase-out bill in either chamber. But give the president and the congressional leadership that bipartisan cover they've been hunting for and things could change very, very quickly. Lieberman would probably put a few more Senate Dems in play and also firm up the whole Republican caucus. Same thing in the House.

As I said, I think the probable deal involves raising the cap and using those new funds for private accounts, thus getting around the idea that it's a 'carve-out'. Of course, you can imagine other permutations. And there's no limit to the policy creativity of a truly faint heart. Whether such a compromise would ever fly or not is another question. But I suspect it's largely beside the point because once you're to that point you're into a process of legislative horse-trading and conference committees. And whether or not some people on the hill realize it, the Republicans control both houses of congress and the White House. So at that point they can pretty much do what they want.

You do have to wonder -- really, really wonder -- about the roots of the urge to split the difference on phase-out seeing as the public is against it and turning more against with time. The policy and the politics are both lined up on one side of the ledger on this one. This isn't about garnering lots of press as the dealmaker, invites to the chat shows or the yearned-for plaudits of an increasingly right-leaning dinner-party centrism. And it shouldn't be about angling for mentions in the Post's increasingly fatuous Social Security editorials. This is about saving Social Security and now about preserving it for a long time to come.

So, Lieberman's the weakpoint in the wall against Social Security phase-out. Sen. Carper too -- but, my gut tells me, not as much as Joe. So if there's a time to pull out all the stops to save Social Security, to mobilize pressure and exert coercive persuasion, now's the time and Lieberman's the guy.

If anything, the press coverage has understated just had badly the Republicans got hammered out in those townhalls last week. So I'm going to be really curious to see if there are any more shake-ups in the Conscience Caucus as a result. I've gotten a partial transcript of some of the stuff Rep. Chris Chocola (R) of Indiana said at his townhall meeting back in South Bend. So there's more of his funny-business to be discussed. Even more though, watch for signs of lots of them wanting to cut a deal and get out.

So, that's it for me for now. I'm going to be turning over the keys to Ed Kilgore of NewDonkey.com and the Democratic Leadership Council. (And for those of you who are most accustomed to thinking of the DLC as a topic in theodicy, be nice.) Ed's a good friend. I'm a big fan of his site. And he's an extremely shrewd observer of American politics in all its facets, both high and low. I'm looking forward to reading what he has to say.

Im a big fan

I'm a big fan of Sen. Joe Biden (D) of Delaware. But I usually figure him for a foreign policy and judiciary guy, rather than a big hitter on domestic policy. But take a look at his appearance today with Sen. Santorum (R) on Meet The Press (which you can see here and read here).

He hits all the key points. Like: "No matter how you cut it, this real debate on personal accounts is about the legitimacy of Social Security; it's not about the solvency of Social Security."

Yes, just so.

Or this: "And the presumption that Social Security can't meet its obligations rests on the notion that the federal government will default, something it's never done in 220 years, on an obligation, on Treasury notes, IOUs, just like the IOUs Japan has and other countries have in terms of buying our Treasury bonds. And so I don't think we'll default."

So true!

It was a minor masterpiece of counter-bamboozlism.

The Count Rep. Chris

The Count, Rep. Chris Chocola (R) of Indiana, just won't quit.

He continues to deny that he ever supported privatization, let alone privatizing all of Social Security. Chocola claims that anyone who says this is either making it up or distorting his words.

So just for the record let's put down, word for word, what he told an editorial board meeting with the Elkhart Truth back in October 2000 ...

"Bush's plan of individual investment of 2 percent of the money is a start. Eventually, I'd like to see the entire system privatized. It's not a 'risky scheme.' There will be a series of investment options for people, professionally managed. If one isn't performing for you, you can change every year. We're not going to let people invest all of their money in Yahoo!

People will be smart enough to understand their risk level. I believe people can make good decisions, and I know they ask really good questions before they make decisions. Will somebody screw it up? No question. But the government is screwing up the whole thing right now.

The whole thing is optional, and it's good for a couple of reasons. One, it's your money and nobody can touch it. It doesn't end up being borrowed by the federal government to pay off other things. Two, it gives you a much better return than you'd ever get out of Social Security. Right now, younger people are getting a negative return on their money.

The stock market has performed at 8 percent return over the past 70 years - that's through wars and depression. If you give people the opportunity, they'll build their self reliance and self respect because they'll be making a direct impact on their lives."

Less than a <$Ad$>month later, on the eve of the election, as his campaign started to swirl down the tubes, Chocola said that claims that he supported a total privatization of Social Security were false: "There is no one proposing, including me, a plan of total privatization."

When he ran again in 2002 he said: "I do not support the privatization of Social Security."

Yesterday at his townhall meeting, according to the South Bend Tribune, he claimed that "allowing people to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into personal accounts is at least one part of the final solution on Social Security."

Final solution? How about, is that your final answer?

Longview Texas News-Journal Feb.

Longview (Texas) News-Journal, Feb. 26th: "Former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey said Friday that Social Security should be phased out rather than saved."

So there it is. Not only does Armey think Social Security should be "phased out", he believes, as he is quoted as saying in the article, that the eventual effect of the Bush plan will be phase-out.

(Read the whole article, which gives the context, but the exact quote in which he used this phase is when he says that: "I think if you leave people free to choose, it will be phased out by competition." This of course is another way of saying that if you let people pull their payroll taxes out of Social Security it will eventually cripple the program.)

Now, in case folks need a precise flow-chart of how to work this, Dick Armey is the head of FreedomWorks. And FreedomWorks is one of the three or four major groups funding and organizing the push for President Bush's privatization plan.

So the head of one of the main groups funding the PR blitz for President Bush's privatization plan says Social Security should be "phased out" and that the eventual effect of the Bush plan will be phase out.

And one other thing, can we get a video or transcript of this talk?

(ed.note: Thanks to this fellow for letting me know about this wonderful article.)

We hear from our

We hear from our observers <$NoAd$>on the scene that Rep. Chris Chocola's (R) meeting in South Bend last night was a bit more raucous than this article in the South Bend Tribune lets on. And they say it was pretty raucous.

In an interview later with the Tribune, Chocola showed again that if patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel (a la Dr. Johnson), Moveon.org is the last excuse of House Republicans who get a shellacking at their Social Security townhall events. Chocola claimed that Moveon TV ads from a couple weeks ago "may have played a role in the demeanor of the South Bend session."

(For a general overview of the mood on Social Security in the Indiana meetings -- including the Count's rough ride -- see this piece in today's Indianapolis Star.)

We were particularly interested in Chocola's response to a question about raising the cap on the payroll tax. A Notre Dame professor named Marty Wolfson cited what appears to have been the SSA's new actuarial memo (or perhaps an earlier iteration of it), which shows that eliminating the payroll tax cap would keep Social Security solvent through 2079 and beyond. Chocola replied that "if it was that easy, it would have been done already" and then went on to say that it wouldn't make any difference anyway since the Trust Fund doesn't really exist.

Then, according to the Tribune, Chocola attempted what can only be called a bravura performance in misunderstanding cause and effect. Chocola argued, according to Tribune reporter James Wensits, that "if the government had not borrowed the money from Social Security it would have borrowed it elsewhere, and the money would still have been spent."

Now, if Chocola really said this, it's one of those statements that gets so many things wrong or upside down that it's hard to know where to begin. But let's at least start by noting that the federal government does not have to run big annual deficits that make it harder than it need be to make good on future obligations to Social Security. Second, Chocola either doesn't grasp or ignores the main point. Had the money not been borrowed from Social Security, the issue is not that it would still have been spent. The issue is that had the money been borrowed from anywhere else but Social Security we wouldn't even be hearing a peep about the idea of not paying it back.

We'll have more on the Count later -- including more about why he just can't admit that only four years ago he supported privatization of the entire Social Security program.

(ed.note: A special note of thanks to our South Bend correspondent DR.)