Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

It's a mixed day for Mainers on the Social Security front.

On the basis of two articles in the Washington Post last week, we've elevated Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) into "Loud and Proud" status within the Conscience Caucus.

Here Snowe tells reporters she will oppose diversion of payroll tax revenue into private accounts. And earlier in the week the Post quoted her saying that she is "certainly not going to support diverting $2 trillion from Social Security into creating personal savings accounts."

On the other hand, Snowe's colleague, Sen. Susan Collins (R) doesn't seem to want to tell her constituents anything about her position on phasing out Social Security. In this letter to a TPM reader constituent, all we could divine from Collins' opaque doubletalk was that she's started using the last buzzword from the GOP Social Security speech code, referring to privatization as "modernization."

Wow. He's sure a downer.

We noted earlier that Rich Thau is the guy who helped the congressional Republicans put together the Social Security playbook they huddled with over the weekend. Here on the Third Millenium website is Thau's promotional video. Right after the screen flashes "the media turn to him for provocative commentary," at timestamp 3:35, Thau hits listeners with this doozy: “If we do nothing between now and the year 2012, we have two drastic options. The government can either cut benefits by about thirty percent or raise payroll taxes by thirty percent. Both are very unpleasant.”

Presumably he was working from the ridiculously pessimistic numbers of a few years ago, not the more up-to-date ridiculously pessimistic numbers. But doesn't the phase-out crowd say that the Social Security gotterdammerung happens in 2042 or 2052?

Hmmm. That's interesting.

Down at the very bottom <$NoAd$> of the GOP Social Security playbook we just posted, there's a sample speech for pitching phase-out to audiences 50 and over. It starts on page 83 of the PDF document. Then if you go down to the end of the speech there's a footer that says ...

This speech was developed by

Presentation Testing, Inc.

For more information about how this speech was developed, please contact Rich Thau at Presentation Testing, Inc. at 212-760-4358.

(Before that sample speech, there's another for young voters which includes the same authorship note.)

Well, TPM reader GD typed Mr. Thau's name into google and found this PDF document in which Thau describes one of the seminars he does. And right there at the top of the document, Thau quotes himself saying: "I've testified on Capitol Hill. I have worked with many members of Congress. They are not committed to passing laws to give your employees retirement security."

This is the guy who's teaching congressional Republicans how to pitch private accounts? The guy who says he knows from experience that members of Congress -- or at least the ones he deals with -- aren't serious about retirement security?

He's quite a character reference ...

Late Update: In this recent article Fred Barnes notes that Thau and Frank Luntz have worked as co-muddlers. The two, it seems, have been comrades-in-arms in the Social Security speech code racket. Thau's company, Presentation Testing, Inc. would appear to be colocated with his Gen-X pro-phase out group Third Millenium. And if you'd care to hear Mr. Thau's views in person, you can hear him on the afternoon panel on day two of the Cato Institute Social Security conference which runs February 8th and 9th.

A few house-keeping <$NoAd$> notes.

We're hoping to be able to ship out the first batch of our uber-cool 'Privatize This' TPM T-Shirts on Wednesday just in time for the kick-off of the president's Social Security bamboozlepalooza tour.

If you've already won a shirt for your fact-finding activities, yours should ship out then or very soon after. As noted earlier, those prefering to operate strictly through the cash nexus will be able to purchase them as well.

The back has the image right there on the side, while the front has the 'Privatize This' banner.

Two other points.

We're going to try to bring you an annotated edition of the Republican strategy memo which we posted earlier today. And today or tomorrow we'll also be posting those 'privatization' flimflam quotes that readers helped us track down.

Rep. Howard Coble (R) of North Carolina sidling up to the Conscience <$NoAd$> Caucus?

From the News & Observer ...

"This is going to be a very tough lift for all of us," said Coble, the longest-serving member of North Carolina's congressional delegation.

Coble has been battling the perception that Republicans would dismantle Social Security since he first ran for Congress 20 years ago.

He cut an ad during that campaign, with his aging parents sitting on a front porch, saying Coble would never hurt Social Security.

"My mama said, 'If he does, I'll take a switch to him,' " Coble said in an interview.

Coble's mother is now 95, and she still would, Coble said.

Coble said he favors fine-tuning rather than overhauling. He finds personal savings accounts "not to be offensive," although he said it's too soon to stake out a position on a plan that has not been presented.

"It's a long way between here and where we tie this ship to the dock," he said.

With such a flood of new members, the Caucus has tightened its eligibility requirements. But Rep. Coble seems like he might want in.

Someone check back with Coble on Friday and see whether Howard's gonna have to take a whoopin' for ole' George W.

Occasionally the import of a tongue-in-cheek post doesn't sink in satisfactorily. So lest there be any confusion, when President Bush hits the road on his pro-phase-out barnstorming tour later this week, defenders of Social Security should make it exceedingly clear that in states like Montana, where the president is allegedly trying to muscle Democrats into supporting his bill, he still hasn't gotten the key Republicans to sign on. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) in Montana is but one example.

In a state like Florida, it is also an opportunity to get all those zipped-lip Republican reps from Florida to tell their constituents whether they support the Bush plan or not.

We were scratching our heads <$Ad$>trying to understand it. Why is President Bush heading out to Montana after his State of the Union address when Sen. Baucus (D) just couldn't make it any clearer that he's not going to vote for a Social Security phase-out bill?

We tossed around a bunch of possible explanations before suddenly the mysterious hidden truth revealed itself: Baucus is just a cover. President Bush is really going to Montana to muscle the state's sole member of the House of Representatives: Rep. Denny Rehberg (R).

Sure, he may have flown under the radar until now. But when asked about the president's phase-out plan back in mid-November, here's what he told the Great Falls Tribune ...

U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, Montana's sole House member and a Republican, says he's a long way from feeling comfortable about "privatizing" or allowing "personal accounts" with Social Security funds, as suggested by the president.

"I haven't seen anything I can support yet," he says.

Not only is Rehberg suggesting he won't vote for phase-out, he's even using the demeaning 'privatizing' buzzword that even most national political reporters aren't allowed to use anymore. That's insubordination this president won't stand.

And along these lines, what about the other states the president is hitting on the campaign trail? I would hate to think that any responsible journalist would cover the president's swing through Florida without finding out whether he's able to get Conscience Caucus members Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R) or Rep. Katherine Harris (R) to sign on.

And what about Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) out in Nebraska? He's been awful silent.

I mean, c'mon. The real question here is whether the president can get members of his own party on board.

Mike Allen has a nice piece in tomorrow's Post about the congressional Republican retreat in West Virginia and their plan to come out hard in favor of the president's phase-out plan. Tomorrow we'll be talking more about what to expect this coming week. But one of the big things is a wave of confident talk about the likelihood of getting a phase-out bill passed this year. Allen's article contains a lot of that in quotes from congressional Republicans.

And then there's this choice graf ...

The congressional Republicans' confidential plan was developed with the advice of pollsters, marketing experts and communication consultants, and was provided to The Washington Post by a Republican official. The blueprint urges lawmakers to promote the "personalization" of Social Security, suggesting ownership and control, rather than "privatization," which "connotes the total corporate takeover of Social Security." Democratic strategists said they intend to continue fighting the Republican plan by branding it privatization, and assert that depiction is already set in people's minds.

So now it's 'personalization' of Social Security. <$Ad$>It's really hard to find out where the reality ends and the parody starts on this, isn't it?

In any case, I think Allen -- who's been a standout on highlighting the White House's rhetorical flimflam on 'privatization' -- lets us down when he says that the Democrats are going to fight back "by branding [the president's policy] privatization."

How can you brand it with something that is already the established term for it? The term proponents of privatization themselves always chose? It's like branding me 'Josh'.

Here I think even the praiseworthy Allen has stumbled into the always-treacherous minefield of false equivalence, suggesting that both sides are trying to 'brand' the policy with the term most advantageous to their side.

That really doesn't cut it.

Yes, 'privatization' is clearly the term Democrats prefer over the truly moronic 'personalization'. But there is a certain matter of 'is' here. As in, that is the term for it.

'Privatization' is both descriptively appropriate for the policy in question and it has been the accepted term embraced by both sides of the debate for roughly a quarter century.

Both sides may have political motives, but Democrats are resisting Republican efforts to enforce a new Social Security speech code, which the latter are trying to impose because their policy is losing public support. To equate the two distorts what is actually happening.

It's almost like the end of an era: Rep. Harold Ford (D) of Tennessee, former Dean of the Fainthearted Faction, now out of the Fainthearted Faction.

Yes, I'm still trying to get my head around it too ...

On Saturday I discussed the Stolberg piece in the Sunday Times and particularly the passage in which she wrote that Ford is only in favor of add-on accounts, not private accounts carved out of Social Security.

That is a significantly broader statement than the one he released a month ago.

In that statement, he was quite clear that he opposed the Bush plan and that proposed by the Cato Institute. But the wording suggested his opposition was based largely on the price tag (i.e., transition costs) rather than concept of privatization itself. "If she's got the nuance of what he told her right," I wrote, "that's a lot more than he's been willing to say to date."

But it turns out that the normally all-knowing TPM research department let me down on this one, Ford has already said this -- and in an article in which TPM is quoted extensively.

The article comes in a recent edition of The Memphis Flyer.

We've edited the passage down with ellipses to focus in on the key points ...

And Ford in his telephone interview was explicit on the point, denying that he does now, or ever did, advocate tapping payroll taxes to create the accounts ... He maintains that he has been misunderstood. "The only kind of Social Security accounts I've ever advocated was the same thing that Bill Clinton and Al Gore talked about. It's what Gore called 'Social Security Plus' in 2000 and what Clinton called 'universal savings accounts.'" ... And the congressman was quite explicit this week about disavowing not only President Bush's Social Security reform proposals but the concept underlying it. "I have not signed on to any legislation, since I have been in Congress to take money from Social Security to create private accounts. I do not favor privatizing Social Security. I am opposed to President Bush's attempt to do so. Categorically," he said. "The president's plan to privatize Social Security will not accomplish what he says he wants to accomplish. It will add too much debt and it will offset any gains that people would make from their accounts because interest rates would skyrocket and benefits would be reduced and the program would run out of money." ... Ford insists that his own proposals for investment accounts would involve general revenues, not those of the Social Security fund, and could be achieved through progressive tax legislation, overturning the effects of the Bush tax cuts of the last several years.

So there you have it. Rep. Harold Ford (D) of Tennessee, fainthearted no more.

See the newly-updated Faction list here.