Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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.

A few days ago, when I announced our new 'privatization' word hunt contest, I predicted, in jest I thought, that before this was over, the Bush camp probably would have outlawed the use of the phrase 'private accounts' too.

Well, as is so often the case with the Bush team, reality has simply outrun mockery.

Matt Yglesias has more.

As he aptly notes, "Since the term was apparently in good standing with privatization's leading advocates as little as three weeks ago, I see no reason we shouldn't keep using the term."

Will Dr. Evil put in an appearance too?

The Sun-Sentinel has a piece in this morning's paper about Florida Democrats getting together to strategize on how to make a comeback in Florida politics -- a state Dems still dominated only a few years ago.

Today, Florida's only statewide Democratic officeholder is Senator Bill Nelson.

So this week a bunch of state Democratic big-wigs are getting together for a strategy session. And where are they meeting? Well, according to the Sun-Sentinel, "Nelson, [Sen. Walter "Skip"] Campbell and a few other party leaders will hold a closed-door meeting this week at U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd's North Florida farm."

Yep, Rep. Allen Boyd, the perfidious poltroon of the Fainthearted Faction, playing host to the Florida Dems comeback strategy meeting.

I guess the powers-that-be in the Florida Democratic party don't think Social Security is a good issue to get behind.

Go figure ...

Here's an idea. Sen. Nelson's been pretty good on Social Security. Maybe folks can get him to set Boyd straight during the secret powwow?

Meanwhile, is Katherine Harris already trying to sneak out of the Conscience Caucus? She just made a trip to Chile to check out how well privatization panned out there. "It's really worked well there," the smiley Republican tells the Herald Tribune.

Note to AARP: Is she playing you guys already?

Time for Bill to step up to the plate.

As we noted last night, with fewer and fewer members of the Fainthearted Faction in play, the White House is looking for crossover Democrats from among those who have already departed from among the living. Namely, to start with, the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, whom the Washington Post says this morning the White House is looking to to provide 'bipartisan' support. (One valuable part of the Post article is reporter Jonathan Weisman's discussion of new evidence that even Moynihan, a genuine supporter of private accounts, himself felt used and strong-armed by the White House on the Social Security Commission he nominally co-chaired.)

But they're also trying to invoke their old favorite, President Bill Clinton.

On this let's get right down to essentials.

Here the White House is hanging its hat on Clinton's 1998 slogan of 'save Social Security first' and a handful of times -- I've only seen two but presumably there are more -- in which he used the word 'crisis' in describing Social Security's funding challenges.

According to the Post, the line the White House has seized on is one from 1998 in which Clinton said "This fiscal crisis in Social Security affects every generation."

So, what to say about this?

First, a few points on the merits.

Apparently, the Bush White House hasn't learned its lesson on cherry-picking. As the article notes, what Clinton went on to say in that speech is that Congress should not spend away the budget surplus on new programs or new tax cuts but rather reserve those surpluses so as to cushion the burden of whatever funding shortfalls might arrive in the future in Social Security.

The point of the 'save Social Security first' rhetoric was the same: practice responsible budgeting now to prepare for whatever challenges Social Security may face down the road. That makes sense because, as we've discussed on earlier occasions, aggregate national debt really is a zero-sum-game. The more debt we build up now, or create for the future in the form of structural deficits, limits our freedom of maneuver down the road. And nobody is saying that Social Security is in perfect shape from now to eternity. Fixes may need to be made over the coming decades. And Clinton's approach of getting the nation's fiscal house in order to be able to deal with whatever challenges arose was a sound one.

Needless to say, the major legislative accomplishments of President Bush's first term was to pass huge new tax cuts which have knocked the country way, way back into deficits which have endangered not only Social Security but the long-term stability of the economy itself.

Another point to keep in mind is that six or seven years ago, the outlook for Social Security was actually different from what it is now. Each successive report of the Social Security Trustees has presented a rosier picture than the one before it.

Yet, the biggest problem on the merits with this argument the White House is trying to make, is a simple one of rhetoric, action and context.

In the course of the Iraq debate, the White House repeatedly carted out cherry-picked Bill Clinton quotes in which Clinton said Iraq and Saddam were a 'threat' or a 'looming threat' or has WMDs or is something that the US would eventually have to deal with, etc. And from that the White House reason, 'Well, look, Clinton said Saddam was a threat too. So he agreed with us. So what's the problem?' Or 'He agreed with us; he just wasn't man enough to act', etc.

The problem is that you can't guage the meaning of a statement outside of its context of rhetoric or action. You can't equate a) calling something a threat and saying the response should be containment and continued scrutiny and b) calling something a threat and then bum-rushing the country into a war that costs a thousand American lives, hundreds of billions of dollars and a good bit of US global leadership all in exchange for finding that there was no threat there at all. And the difference between what Bill Clinton said and did on Social Security in 1997-98 compared to what President Bush is doing on Social Security today is pretty similar to the difference in what both did and said over Iraq.

Yet, having said all this -- and I think the White House's argument is pretty silly on the face of it -- just as he did in Iraq, Bill Clinton used rhetoric on Social Security that greased the skids for President Bush. He and his advisors couldn't have known then that their successors in office would be such hucksters and con-men on these two issues. But then the consequences of our actions are often unclear to us at the time we act.

If the White House is really intent on pulling another Iraq stunt on Social Security, trying to cherry-pick old Bill Clinton quotes to scam the American public on their Social Security phase-out plans, then it's Clinton's responsibility to step up to the plate and knock that new con right out of the park.

No, he shouldn't be the Dems' spokesperson on Social Security. But this is a particular ploy he's uniquely positioned to discredit. And this one's his responsibility.

In any case, I hear he's a pretty good communicator.