Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Articles in tomorrow's Washington Times and New York Times show the White House conceding defeat in the initial skirmish over phasing-out Social Security. But, of course, the broader battle has scarcely even started.

The NY Times piece ("White House Looking for Ways to Ease Opposition to Social Security Overhaul") describes White House efforts to tweak their phase-out proposal (largely through shifting benefit cuts around) to calm opposition among Republicans and perhaps break the solid opposition from Democrats. The Wash Times piece has money-man Stephen Moore giving advice on "Getting Reform Back on Track," as the title of his piece puts it.

This is where we start to see what cards folks are really holding.

For Democrats, especially, the president has shown his hand. He wants to begin phasing-out Social Security and replacing it with a system of private investment accounts. Clearly, they're not dealing with a president who's about making some adjustments in the program to ensure its longterm viability. And that really should be all Democrats need to know. What we'll see now is whether, if President Bush makes the benefit cuts a bit less draconian or fiddles with the diversion of Social Security taxes, any of them are inclined to reward him.

This is key to the entire unfolding debate: do Democrats start looking for ways to ameliorate the damage caused by the president's phase-out plan or do they try to push the debate further on to why Social Security is good for America and should be retained. (Needless to say, whether Democrats do start to soften their position will have a direct and immediate effect on the willingness on Republicans to get back on board with the president's phase-out program.)

The question is not whether President Bush gets to phase-out 30% or 40% or 25% of Social Security in 2005. At least, it's not a question or a distinction that should concern Democrats or, for that matter, Republican supporters of Social Security. In the long run, whether we phase out 50% this year or 25% this year and another 25% in 2007 or some other mix isn't a matter of great consequence. The question is whether we start down the path of phasing it out at all.

The difference of opinion and values is pretty straightforward: Democrats support Social Security, the president supports private accounts. What is there to do but to find out where everyone stands?

Just a little background.

We've heard from a few of our spies who've been in private meetings that Sen. Evan Bayh (D) or Indiana has been holding around the country to get set to run for president in a few years. And the Senator is telling these folks that he doesn't think there's a Social Security 'crisis' and that he'd only support private accounts as an add-on to Social Security, not as carve outs -- in other words, he says he has the consensus Democratic position.

But apparently, he's very much of the opinion that he shouldn't state his position publicly until President Bush announces a specific proposal.

Of course, if recent experience is any guide, that will probably happen shortly after the bill comes out of conference and about three hours before both houses get convened to vote on it in the middle of the night. After all, anything else would amount to the president being reduced to negotiating with himself.

In any case, here's the stand Sen. Bayh takes on private accounts in letters to constituents ...

Vigorous debate continues to take place over proposals to create personal retirement accounts, also referred to as "privatizing" Social Security. Proponents of personal retirement accounts suggest that allowing individuals to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in the stock market would result in greater returns on the money, providing an increased financial yield for retirement. However, opponents of personal retirement accounts believe that subjecting Social Security to the risks of the stock market could lead to reduced benefits for many recipients. In addition, they raise the question of how the transition to a system of personal accounts could be financed given the reemergence of budget deficits. Finally, they note that individuals may not make wise investment decisions, as their timing for acquiring and selling the investments may be poor.

Get the lead outta that prose and put it to music that could almost be a Schoolhouse Rock, couldn't it?

He continues ...

As a member of the Special Committee on Aging, I have been carefully evaluating the various proposals for long term Social Security reform. I believe that all aspects of reform must be reviewed to ensure that the long-term viability of the Social Security system is restored. Please be assured that I will keep your views in mind as I continue to work with both sides of the aisle to formulate a long term solution to ensure that Social Security is able to meet its long term commitments to retirees and future generations.

I'd say he's in the Faction, wouldn't you?

The whole senate Faction closing up shop?

From the Times (emphasis added) ...

While Republicans listed changes in Social Security as their No. 1 objective, Democrats made enlarging the armed forces and providing new military benefits as their top goal, rejecting the idea that the retirement program needed urgent repair. A poll of all Democratic senators by the Democratic staff of the Senate Finance Committee found none who supported diverting Social Security tax revenue into personal investment accounts, the centerpiece of Mr. Bush's initiative.

That's wonderful. But we'd much prefer to hear it publicly. If each member of the senate Faction really has decided not to vote for the president's bill, they're only making it more likely by keeping mum.

Ahhhhhh ... an AARP vs. GOP poll smack-down. Truly a delight to behold.

Let's start by stipulating that a public poll commissioned by or organized by an advocacy group should always be treated with skepticism and heightened scrutiny since, by definition, such a group has an agenda. If Cato or one of the pro-phase-out astroturf groups like 60 Plus did a poll on privatization, Social Security supporters would pick it over like crazy.

So, it's no surprise that according to this AP story, the RNC rushed out a two page memo designed to discredit the AARP poll, charging that it relied on "slanted wording, misleading questions and an unrepresentative sample of the nation as a whole."

But if you look at what their main gripe is, it turns out to be that the pollsters had the unvarnished temerity to use phrase 'private accounts' in their description of President Bush's policy.

Says the article ...

John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster, said the AARP survey was "skewed by age and skewed by politics,'' and that the repeated use of the term "private accounts'' results in a drop-off in support for Bush's proposals.

That's extraordinary, ain't it? Sort of like how public support for gay marriage just drops right down when you say it allows marriage rights for gays.

How can they expect to get good numbers when they call private accounts 'private accounts'? To paraphease Matt Yglesias from earlier today, it's hard to figure how AARP can be too far off base using the dreaded "private accounts" language when the main privatizers themselves still used it as their phrase of choice no more than three weeks ago.

For my money, I would just as soon fast-forward to June, when word will come down from the RNC with the Russert stamp of approval that the accounts formerly known as private are only fairly styled 'self-actualization and personal fulfilment accounts' and be done with it.

It sounds like Rep. Mike Ross (D) Arkansas is another fiscally conservative Red State Democrat (a member of the 'Blue Dog Coalition') who is strongly opposed to President Bush's Social Security phase-out plan and not afraid to say it.

Just one more Social Security Democrat.

Not only is Rep. Virgil Goode of Virginia in the Conscience Caucus, he may even be Loud and Proud in his opposition to the president's plan.

This afternoon we received a copy of a constituent letter Rep. Goode is sending out in which he says he is "negatively inclined towards these <$Ad$> private accounts and President Bush's plan."

We called up the congressman's district office to confirm and ended up speaking to the man himself. While prefacing his remarks with the standard caveats that he hasn't yet seen a specific plan, he told TPM that he was "negatively inclined toward these private accounts funded out of the Social Security tax."

I tried to draw the congressman out on whether his apparent opposition to the Bush plan was based on opposition to private accounts as such or also to the substantial additional borrowing that the president's plan would require. He paused for a moment and then said that he'd prefer to let his statement speak for itself, or words to that effect.

However, since both his cosntituent letter and his statements to TPM specifically grounded his opposition to private accounts, it seems pretty clear that that's what he's against. He apparently feels no need to hang his hat on the very real fiscal arguments in play. He's just against phasing-out Social Security.

Goode's inclination not to beat around the bush on this issue was also in evidence today in a quote he gave the local paper, News & Record. "I can’t see establishing private accounts using Social Security funds, he tells the paper. "I want the benefits to be assured for our senior citizens so they're not jerked around.”

Would that a few more Dems could put the matter so clearly. (Note that until a few years ago Goode was a Democrat.)

Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, by way of contrast, is telling constituents she has "concerns about the use of individual retirement accounts ... [and] serious concerns about changing the nature of the Social Security system." Her colleague Senator Cantwell (D) of Washington is more straightforward. Near the top of her letters to constituents on this issue, she says simply: "I am opposed to privatizing Social Security."

It's possible of course that Sen. Murray's concern is so profound that it has prevented her from taking a clear position on the issue.

In our up-is-down political world, authoring memos which for the first time put the United States government on record sanctioning torture probably can't get you nixed for Attorney General. But fibbing about your role in covering up one of the president's DUIs just might. Newsweek's Isikoff is on the case.