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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

"You also mentioned what you call 'privatization' of Social Security," CNN anchor Judy Woodruff told House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt in an interview last Thursday. "The Republicans are crying foul. Your counterpart running the campaigns for the Republicans in the House are (sic) saying the Democrats are being false. They're being misleading, that they are not talking about privatizing Social Security."

We've previously noted how easy it usually is for conservatives to bully reporters with charges of media bias. There's a mix of poor judgment, poor memory, insecurity and low-grade cowardice which makes this possible -- a messy collision of conservative self-pity and journalistic self-loathing. But let's set aside that deeper issue for a moment to look at a particularly revealing example of the phenomenon.

Both parties try to tag their opponents' policies with phrases and labels intended to place them in the most negative light. The best recent example of this is the Republican rechristening of the estate tax as the 'death tax.' But it's an equal opportunity game. And both sides will lean on reporters not to start using these self-serving labels as straightforward descriptions of the issues being discussed.

It was in this vein that the National Republican Congressional Committee sent out a memo last Monday claiming, inter alia ...

Democrats are doing all they can to blur the very important distinction between 'personal accounts' and 'privatization.' They are employing the word 'privatization' for the specific purpose of eliciting negative reactions among seniors because it carries connotations of dismantling the publicly run Social Security system. 'Privatization' is a false and misleading word insofar as it is being used by Democrats to describe Republican positions on Social Security.

Despite this, some reporters -- even some national reporters -- continue to inaccurately describe the concept of personal accounts as privatization. To the extent that reporters are wittingly or unwittingly complicit in the Democrat strategy to make 'personal accounts' and 'privatization' one in the same, they are using the power of the press to promote inaccurate Democrat spin and taking sides in the midterm elections.

Reporters have historically rejected partisan spin phrases as descriptors of policy proposals. They have done this because semantics matter. In the past, reporters have not used inaccurate or politically loaded descriptions in reporting because it violates a critical component of the journalistic code of ethics - reporters must distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. That is precisely the reason that most newspapers use 'estate tax' as opposed to 'death tax' and 'minimum wage' instead of 'living wage.'

It is very important that we not allow reporters to shill for Democrat demagoguery by inaccurately characterizing 'personal accounts' and 'privatization' as one in the same.

Woodruff's question to Gephardt a few days later was clearly in response to this memo and a broader Republican campaign to mau-mau reporters out of using the word 'privatization' in this context.

No two ways about it: this argument couldn't be more stupid or dishonest. Why it's not one of Tim Noah's Whoppers of the Week I'm really not sure.

You can make a pretty good case that 'privatization', or more specifically 'partial privatization', is just objectively the most accurate description of Republican policy -- that is, diverting about a fifth of Social Security's funding base into private accounts for individuals.

But why bother with mere objective accuracy, especially since 'objective' descriptions are going to be hard to come by on such a charged issue? Why not just go with the word Republicans have always used? The simple truth is that 'privatization' has always been the word Republicans themselves used to describe their policy. That is, it was until they rather belatedly realized that their policy was killing them with voters.

Examples? My god, where to start? Grover Norquist, American Spectator, June 1998: "With $14 billion of the surplus, Congress could give every working American $100 in his own IRA. Americans will then be able to compare their return on their IRA with their negative rate of return on Social Security and this will highlight the case for partial privatization." In June 1999, again in the Spectator, Norquist lauded Steve Forbes' plan for "privatization of Social Security" and said Forbes had "convinced many Republicans that the flat tax and privatization were fit for polite company." Or conservative Washington Times columnist Donald Lambro, April 27th, 1998: "Mr. Moynihan's plan [essentially the plan noted above] would move toward partial privatization." Or Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard, April 6th, 1998, again referring to the plan noted above: "[T]he White House may be ready to accept partial privatization as the price of a reform deal..." Bill Kristol, George Will, Larry Kudlow (just the ones I looked up) and probably every other conservative under the sun has long described the move to private accounts as privatization.

So friends and foes of the policy have always called it 'privatization' or 'partial privatization.' Now the term (and the policy, for that matter) is a political loser. So Republican operatives are cooking up lies to get themselves off the hook. Everyone has to change the name. And if they don't, they're biased against conservatives.

What reporter would be foolish enough or sorry enough to fall for this? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

TPM is off for a week. Expect new posts on or about the 1st of September.

Allow me to recommend a book: The Emerging Democratic Majority by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira. No question: it's the political book of the year. It's not a rah-rah book; there's no Bush-bashing; it's not written by a leggy, blonde whackjob. But it's the most penetrating and prescient look at American politics you're likely to read for some time. If you favor what Judis and Teixeira call the politics of the 'progressive center' the news is quite good. Conservatives may not agree with their findings. But the book will challenge their optimism about the political future.

(Judis and Teixeira published a synopsis of the book's argument in a recent article in The New Republic. Also, full disclosure: both these guys are friends of mine. But I don't make a habit of recommending friends' books. So, believe me, it's every bit as good as I say it is.)

The book's title is consciously modeled on Kevin Phillips 1969 classic The Emerging Republican Majority, which argued -- correctly -- that the fracturing of the New Deal consensus was laying the groundwork for a new conservative ascendancy. It's an apt analogy.

The basic argument here is straightforward: a handful of demographic, economic and cultural trends are combining to create a new Democratic majority. It's not the old New Deal coalition. It's more centrist, more like the early 20th century Progressives than the mid-20th century New Dealers. It's based on professionals, women and minorities. And its engine is the post-industrial economy. The factors creating these changes include the rise of what the authors call 'ideopolises' -- "areas where the production of ideas and services has either redefined or replaced assembly-line manufacturing"; the declining salience of race-tinged political appeals and other 'wedge issues'; and the Democratic party's slow move toward incrementalist reformism.

If you think of it in terms of the 2000 election map's Blue v. Red America, they argue, Blue America is growing. Red America's not. That doesn't mean necessarily that the Blue states are growing and the Red states are shrinking. In fact, in many cases, the opposite is happening -- at least in relative terms . What it does mean is that the kinds of demographic groups and regional economies that make the Blue states blueish are growing -- in many cases even within states that voted Red in 2000. Follow that? Good.

Republicans often push a contrary argument: that the fastest growing counties in the country, for instance, went overwhelmingly for Bush in 2000. But Judis and Teixeira show why this argument is based on a crude error of statistical analysis. (That, or a tendentious interpretation.) The fastest growing counties in percentage terms turn out - not surprisingly - to be quite small. In the counties with the highest growth in absolute terms, Gore won by a solid margin.

Some of this is obvious enough so long as you're not a political reporter with an earpiece receiving daily inspirational breifings from Karl Rove. (If your base is in rural and smalltown America, in the long-run, that's a problem.) But these guys get to the heart of just why it's happening, where, what the numbers are, the mix of economics and culture which is the wind of politics.

New Democrats and traditionalist, labor-liberal Democrats will each find things they'll like in this book (what struck me, from reading the book, is how stale many aspects of the New Dem/Old Dem debate have become). But the real excitement and value of this book comes in the way it traces these developments back at least thirty years and in many cases far further back than that. The authors do a fine job weaving together highly readable recent political history with a great mass of polling and demographic data and a nuanced understanding of how political coalitions work. It's that rare political book which is both rich in substantive and a good read. Pick up a copy. You'll be glad you did.

Well, I'm trying to finish stuff up before heading off on vacation. But for those who were kind enough to fire off emails, I thought I'd give a final update on the Post's pilfering of the name of this site for their own online, DC-based, politics column. I finally heard from washingtonpost.com's Executive Editor Douglas B. Feaver on Tuesday. Their line, in essence, is: it's a common phrase; others have used it; you have no claim to it; we'll keep using it for Terry Neal's column.

They make some good points, some misleading or off-point points, and a few rather tendentious points. But there you go.

Here's my two cents on this: A number of trademark attorneys have offered their services to me pro bono on this matter (offers I sincerely appreciate), telling me that my case would actually be reasonably strong, though certainly no slam-dunk. The heart of the matter seems to be that in trademark law the issue is the similarity of the names and the similarity of the products and whether the combined proximity would lead to people confusing one for the other. Thus it wouldn't necessarily be relevant if someone else were using the same title in a different context, etc. Other lawyers, though sympathetic, have written in to say that the whole thing is just too muddy and the phrase too commonly used to make anything of it. Which view is closer to the mark? I haven't a clue. I'm not a lawyer. And, obviously, I don't have the time or the resources to get into a legal tussle with the Post. But frankly I've never seen this as a legal issue. Just a matter of doing the right thing or the wrong thing, and my preference for the Post to do the former rather than the latter.

Anyway, I've said my piece. Thanks as always to the regular readers of this site. Your support of this site, in all forms, is greatly appreciated. Now I've got to go pack fishing gear.

Well, I'm trying to finish stuff up before heading off on vacation. But for those who were kind enough to fire off emails, I thought I'd give a final update on the Post's pilfering of the name of this site for their own online, DC-based, politics column. I finally heard from washingtonpost.com's Executive Editor Douglas B. Feaver yesterday. Their line, in essence, is: it's a common phrase; others have used it; you have no claim to it; we'll keep using it for Terry Neal's column. Some good points, a lot of misleading and off-point points. But there you go.

I was going to respond to the letter and then I saw that it had been sent out from a specially-prepared 'dummy' email address 'points@washingtonpost.com' -- in other words a virtual trash-bin designed to prevent anyone from actually responding to the person who sent it, etc.

Meanwhile, Terry Neal told several people that he'd received 'literally hundreds of emails' about this. And today he devotes his column to answering reader email. But apparently he was too afraid to publicly address the point or respond to any of your mails in his column. So what can you do?

Just now I see that Neal is sending out a mass-mailing to everyone who wrote in to him. He includes the letter Feaver sent me and then also a copies an email back and forth between me and a third party. (In other words, I have an email back and forth with person A. Person A forwards the back and forth to Terry Neal. Terry Neal mass emails it to hundreds of people.) Needless to say, without permission.

Here's my two cents on this: A number of lawyers have offered their services to me pro bono on this matter (offers I sincerely appreciate). They tell me my case would actually be pretty good, though certainly no slam-dunk. But I don't have the time or the resources to get into a legal tussle with the Post, in which they could, these same lawyers have also warn me, inflict a lot of damage. But frankly I've never seen this as a legal matter. Just a matter of doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Neal's stunt with the email captures the larger point: Is there a legal problem with doing that? No. Is it cheesy, low-class behavior? Yep.

Anyway, I've said my piece. Thanks as always to the regular readers of this site. Your support of this site in all forms is greatly appreciated. Now I've got to go pack fishing gear.

Howie Kurtz has a piece today on the new conservative complaint that The New York Times is tossing aside whatever objectivity conservatives feel the Times has left to prevent a war against Iraq. The accused here, of course, is Times Executive Editor Howell Raines. I have no brief for Raines. His years of crusading against Bill Clinton from his perch as editor of the Times OpEd page makes my personal sense of him pretty much permanently negative. And I haven't paid sufficient systematic attention to the Times Iraq coverage to say definitively what tilt I think there might be. But this brouhaha over whether the Times distorted the position of Henry Kissinger to advance its own editorial line (portraying Kissinger as a critic of administration policy when in fact, say the conservatives, he was endorsing it) tells enough of the tale.

If you read the Kissinger piece and the Times article and you understand the terms of the debate you cannot help but conclude that the Times characterization of what Kissinger said is vastly more accurate than the characterization being peddled by conservative Iraq-hawks. In the Iraq debate, the attitude toward inspections is fundamental. The administration line -- emanating from the Pentagon and the Office of the Vice President -- doesn't believe in them at all. Neither tactically nor strategically. The fact that Kissinger says we should start by "propos[ing] a stringent inspection system that achieves substantial transparency of Iraqi institutions" makes him, by definition, a critic of administration policy on a fundamental point.

What you have here is the fun-house episode in which Charles Krauthammer and others are tendentiously misconstruing what Kissinger said and then simultaneously falsely accusing Times writers of doing what he has in fact himself just done.

At the end of the day, Kissinger dissents from Bush's policy while Krauthammer says he supports it. If there's a contest for distortions here Krauthammer wins easily.

(First, let's deal with a few other points. In fairness to everyone in this debate one has to point out that Kissinger's piece was, as John Judis noted last week in TPM, intentionally muddy and opaque. It lends itself not so much to misinterpretations as self-serving interpretation. A la Krauthammer, et.al. Another point: the Times article everyone is discussing is the Purdum and Tyler piece from August 16th. The piece the next day by Elizabeth Bumiller -- which the critics also mention -- does use a shorthand (putting Kissinger in a "a group of Republicans who were warning him against going to war with Iraq") which glosses over much of what he said. But to make too much of this line -- after the Times discussed the fullness of what Kissinger said the day before -- would be to fall into Krauthammer's mau-mauing trap, scrutinizing every line in every Times piece when his own column is filled with mistatements, tendentious misconstruals, intentional ignoring of awkward data, and so forth.)

Now another point: when I talked with Kurtz yesterday for his article I said I thought the Times was doing a good thing by reporting on all the downsides of going to war with Iraq. Frankly, no one else is. Tucker Carlson got himself in an embarrassing moment yesterday on Crossfire when he got out-argued by the editor of the Village Voice on this Kissinger question. But recently he's been saying that elected Democrats have abdicated their responsibility by basically sitting out the debate over Iraq policy. And on this I'm sad to say I think he's right. By and large they're just not saying anything. That's too bad. Because the Democrats could help themselves and their country by outlining a policy for regime change which is not as amateurish and ill-considered as the one the administration is currently pursuing.

Next up, why it makes sense to push inspections first if you're serious about getting rid of Saddam and why someone should be telling the public about all the dangers involved in a strike against Iraq -- something which most of the hawks want to ignore.

Breaking News: The suits at the washingtonpost.com respond. More soon.

Students of warfare will tell you that the stroke of actual violence is sometimes only the coup de grace. The build-up can be key: creating divisions in the enemy camp, sowing confusion and uncertainty with disinformation and propaganda, putting the enemy off-balance. Sun-Tzu has a slew of great aphorisms illustrating the point.

Unfortunately, those things seem to be happening here, in the United States, at least as much as in Iraq.

The Stratfor strategy intelligence site said yesterday that the White House is beginning a climb-down from its bellicose rhetoric on Iraq and looking for the least damaging way to do so. Or maybe not? The President has called a meeting of what amounts to his war cabinet down in Crawford, Texas on Wednesday. Officially, they're slated to talk about military 'transformation.' The personnel involved, however, make it look more like a meeting -- perhaps a key one -- on Iraq.

What's going on? Who knows? And that uncertainty applies to pretty much everything about administration Iraq policy right now. What we're doing, how we're going to do it, why we're going to do it. Everything.

The administration's approach to building up to this conflict turns out to be a reductio ad absurdum of its notorious addiction to secrecy. They say it's premature for the president to discuss why, when and how we might be going to war or what the costs might be because he has not yet made a decision about whether to do it at all. Until then, everything's under wraps. Yet this is belied by numerous statements that make the president's decision -- in favor of war -- seem quite clear. In fact, if the president hasn't made a decision he is making his country play the fool on the world stage since he and his advisors are clearly threatening war. Either he's not leveling with the country when he says he hasn't made a decision or he's engaging in a classic case of talking loudly and carrying a very little stick.

"I want him to make the case when he's decided to go in," said Ken Adelman this evening on Crossfire, summing up the administration line. "That will be the time to make the case." In other words, persuade the public after you've signed off on an attack. But this isn't persuasion or even explanation. It's just an announcement -- the presidential equivalent of a declaration of war.

You build support for a war policy so that you go into it with a unified nation behind you. You don't commit yourself and then go see if you can convince anyone that it's a good idea. In any case, the issue here isn't really a matter of the quality of the president's presentation. It's the palpable and widespread doubt that the president's team really knows what they're doing. They're working up their Iraq policy like they crafted the botched plan for the Department of Homeland Security, with a half dozen suits working away in secret in some windowless room in the White House, ready to spring the whole thing on the public fully formed, and then hope -- really hope -- that everyone is wowed into falling into line. Adelman again sums it up nicely: "I think that once the president ... says that we absolutely have to go in. ... I think that the view of Americans, 90 percent of Americans would say that's a very good thing." Truthfully, it's another example of the big bluff from the White House.

Let's be honest. There's a more logical explanation for the president's weird reluctance to talk details. The White House has walked very far out onto the plank committing itself to 'regime change' by war. If they have to climb down from that rhetoric now the country will be embarrassed and humiliated. At best they have tenuous support within the country. They have virtually no support anywhere else in the world. And to date they have no credible war plan that withstands both military and geopolitical scrutiny. Like Adelman, they say that once the president gives the go-ahead all of this will change. Keeping up the no-decision's-been-made charade puts off having to admit that that's not true.

What would David Dreier do without Osama bin Laden?

Harsh words? Perhaps. But painfully apt. David Dreier is the hail-fellow-well-met congressman from the small patch of LA suburbs where I grew up. Today he was on Wolf Blitzer's show debating the economy and the deficit with South Carolina Congressman John Spratt. Every time Spratt explained that the president's tax cut had created vast new federal deficits over the next decade (just as Democrats said it would) Dreier jumped in with a 'that was all before September 11th.' Clear meaning: the bleak fiscal picture is fallout from September 11th. Don't blame us.

But even White House budget analysts don't believe this. They say some 40% of the decline in the projected ten-year surplus is directly due to the president's tax cut -- numbers which are themselves likely understated. Spending on defense and homeland security is but a small part of the equation.

But isn't the recession responsible for the red ink, you might ask? Not a valid argument. Go back and look at the debates. The premise of the opposition was that the surplus numbers would fall substantially in the next economic downturn. A big tax cut on top of that would throw us back into the deficit era. As, indeed, it did. The central fact of politics today is that the president rammed through a tax cut which he said wouldn't create deficits. The opposition said it would. Now the evidence is in; the president was wrong; and the country is paying the price. Dreier and other administration apologists are trying to pass it off on Osama bin Laden. It's not true. They know it's not true. And it won't work. But there's no other argument left.

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