Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Many principles and lessons from military history are readily applicable to the political world. And one that is particularly applicable is that few maneuvers are more difficult to execute than an organized and orderly retreat under hostile fire.

Without a good discipline, a good plan and good morale, it can degenerate quickly into a rout and a slaughter.

Which brings us to the question of Social Security. An orderly retreat is what the White House and its congressional allies are trying to do.

I get asked a lot just what the White House is thinking. Every day, it seems, they get more bad news on the Social Security front. So just what do they think is going to happen?

I wondered about this myself a lot. And I can't say that I really have a good answer. But I have a tentative one. And perhaps that will do since I don't think the White House has more than a tentative answer either.

Basically, what I think is happening is that the White House is trying to keep up the Bamboozlepalooza thing long enough and monotonously enough that eventually people start forgetting that this was supposed to be a specifc piece of legislation the president the president was going to push through Congress this year, even this spring.

After a while it starts to sound a bit more like background noise. And suddenly it's more like some vague public education campaign with no specific or immediate goal in mind, like President Clinton's ill-fated 'conversation about race'.

Basically, having thrown down the gauntlet, President Bush is trying to wriggle out of the challenge so that he can get out of admitting to an abject political defeat.

Do that, they figure, and give the tremulous folks in Congress marching orders to keep their comments vague. Then you can either wait and see if other possibilities develop or just let the whole thing die and hope no one remembers how it all started.

Music to our ears.

From the Times: "Whatever the reason, people who have worked on Capitol Hill for generations said they could not remember a time when Democrats in the Senate were so unified. Except for Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who says he has not made up his mind, every Democratic senator is committed to opposing diverting Social Security taxes into individual accounts."

One of the endlessly mind-numbing things about public opinion polls (especially when they're churned through the meat grinder of daily journalism) is how you can have separately asked questions, the answers to which completely contradict each other.

So for instance, you have this lead paragraph in an article now running at CNN ...

A majority of U.S. Catholics surveyed want the next pope to have a theological outlook similar to that of Pope John Paul II, but they would also like to see changes on issues such as birth control, stem cell research and allowing priests to marry, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Sunday.

As the article notes further down into the piece ...

Seventy-eight percent said the next pope should allow Catholics to use birth control, 63 percent said he should let priests marry and 59 percent said the next pope should have a less-strict policy on stem cell research.

Needless to say, a Pope who followed <$NoAd$> any of those suggestions, let alone all of them, would be one who had a very different outlook from John Paul II.

I've mentioned a few times of late that we're soon going to be launching a new website that will be an adjunct or companion site to Talking Points Memo. One of the main features of the site will be a new group blog, which we're very excited about. It will feature some voices you're likely familiar with, and others you've either never heard before or at least have never read in a blog format. It will likely have a few more than a dozen authors -- a mix of writers and politicos, at least a couple of whom you will have seen as guest bloggers at TPM.

In addition to that, however, the site will also be a forum for TPM readers to discuss and debate the issues raised on TPM as well as to raise and hash out questions we're not discussing, but that you think we should be.

Another reason for launching the site is something that only became clear to me in the last six months or so. And that is, the way that blogs can facilitate what amounts to a sort of distributed or open-source journalism. Perhaps, you might even call it open-source muck-raking.

I began to sense the possibilities of this during the whole Sinclair Broadcasting debacle last fall, again with the 'DeLay Rule', and then on a larger scale with President Bush's jihad against Social Security. When people guest-blog on TPM, they never fail to be amazed at just how much quality information comes in from readers. And in this case, I don't just mean solid thinking and analysis, but concrete factual data.

It would have been impossible for me, for instance, to have written most of what I've written on Social Security over the last few months if I didn't have literally thousands of people reading their local papers and letting me know what they're seeing or reporting back from townhall meetings or giving me the heads up on things that are about to break on the hill. That's not a replacement for journalism; it's different. But it's potentially very powerful.

We want this site to facilitate more of that sort of joint endeavor, bringing together readers with an interest in a particular issue, pooling all the information they're able to collect and bringing it together in one place. (The Bankruptcy Blog we recently set up at TPM was one limited effort to do that. We sort of jumped ahead with our plan in that case because the need seemed so pressing.) And here's where we'd love your input.

There are many great discussion and community sites out there. In terms of discussion sites, some features of which we're going to be using and others we're not. We're eager to hear about features you like or don't like or, even more, things you wish other sites had, but don't. Even more, we'd love your input about the last issue I discussed, this distributed or open-source journalism. Many of you have been sending in tips for months, contacting representatives and senators, sending in news stories that aren't getting picked up in the national press. We're looking for ways to put you into with each other more directly, to facilitate that sort of exchange or activism on others issues beside Social Security.

Now, we have our own ideas about how to do this and we're incorporating those into the site as we design it. But we're very eager to get your input too. So drop us a line and let us know what you think.

Is the bug man in trouble back in the district?

While I'm all for running a well-financed challenger against DeLay in 2006 (and in every election thereafter, for that matter) I've always figured it was pretty unlikely he'd actually get run out of office by his constituents. But maybe not.

A new Houston Chronicle poll conducted by Zogby found that 40% of his constituents have a less favorable opinion of him now than they did last year. Meanwhile, only 11% said they thought better of him.

It is true, reports the Chronicle, that "half of the respondents gave DeLay a somewhat or very favorable rating. Yet 49 percent said they would vote for someone other than DeLay if a congressional election in the 22nd District were at hand; 39 percent said they would stick with him."

Now, lest anyone get the wrong impression, I'm not saying DeLay's defeat is likely, let alone inevitable. But this poll does suggest that you don't need to make too many heroic assumptions to come up with a scenario in which a solid challenger could unseat him.

And, of course, there's still 18 months for DeLay to threaten federal judges, commit more corrupt acts and rope the members of his caucus into rewriting more of the ethics rules to keep him in the clear. So he might become more unpopular still.

Bamboozlepalooza, Street Theater Edition!

Next Tuesday President Bush is taking the Bamboozlepalooza Tour to West Virginia.

But he's going somewhere special, Parkersburg, home of the Bureau of Public Debt. That's where the Treasury notes that make up the Social Security Trust Fund are kept -- the ones the president and his allies deride as worthless slips of paper or worthless IOUs.

Indeed, in announcing the president's visit, White House spokesman Taylor Gross noted that "This is a center that, in a sense, houses the IOUs of Social Security." And then he went on to say that "the president seeks to highlight the fact that the IOUs housed at Parkersburg are a good example of why this system needs to be fixed."

After touring the Bureau, the president is scheduled to move on to a Bamboozlepalooza event at West Virginia University at Parkersburg.

Now, the article on the visit in the Parkersburg News and Sentinel, which appeared before the death of John Paul II, noted that the Pope's then-apparently-imminent death could lead to a change in scheduling of the president's trip. But whenever the visit occurs, the clear aim is to create footage of the president chatting up or even handling the debt instruments he says are worthless and that he is so committed to not repaying or defaulting on.

Now, if there were any shame in the man or any sense in the media, this would be treated like a case of the crook returning to the scene of the crime -- only we might say, in this case, in advance of the bad act he aspires to.

But it would certainly make sense for the supporters of Social Security to raise this question again now in the clearest terms: Does the president believe that those Treasury notes are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States and will he guarantee those funds will be repaid?

Late Update: TPM Reader AK writes in with a splendid bit of lexical or phraseological insight. What the president is doing is casing the joint.

Even Later Update: Actually, why didn't I realize this the first time through? The president is making a special stop at the Bureau of Public Debt to view his legacy.

Did the fat man sing?

As was widely reported yesterday, House Speaker Denny Hastert (R) of Illinois is quoted in the National Journal saying he doesn't believe the Republican Congress will be able to pass a Social Security phase-out bill in 2005.

He says it will have to wait until 2006.

Now, the idea that the Republicans are going to have the fortitude, shall we say, to pass a phase-out bill within six months of an election when they were too scared to do it eighteen months before an election is preposterous.

So what Hastert is saying is that Social Security phase-out is over in the 109th Congress.

Mind you, that doesn't mean I think it's over. But that is what he's saying, for all who have ears to hear it.

(ed.note: Another point worth noting is that the White House either didn't or couldn't get Hastert to eat his words like they did with Bill Frist. Hastert followed up by saying he'd like to pass a bill this year. But that means nothing. He'd like to, but he doesn't think it's possible.)

I try to follow a rule of not commenting or else saying little about topics on which I have no particular expertise or knowledge. But the apparently-imminent death of John Paul II is a historic event, unique at least in our lifetimes. So let me just share some thoughts with you.

One memory that stands out in my mind is from 1978, sitting down with my grandfather in a TV and card-playing room in the seniors’ apartment complex where my grandparents then lived. We were sitting in front of the TV, perhaps after he or I got too bored playing gin rummy with each other, and I think I must have asked why there wasn’t anything else on beside stuff about picking a new Pope. And my memory is hearing my grandfather say to me, in this almost passive sort of shrug I remember so well about him, ‘Ehh, everything now is the Vatican …”

This would have been when I was nine and my grandfather was 68. And it was a seniors’ retirement community run by the local B’nai B’rith in St. Louis. One other thing that is worth mentioning --- especially for people under thirty --- is that before John Paul II, the Pope was a much more, well … parochial figure than he has been in the decades since.

The Pope didn’t travel around the world. He was always an Italian. And he was far less involved in the ecumenical work that played such a role in John Paul’s pontificate. All of this goes to say that for a Jewish nine-year-old and his grandfather sitting in a rec room in a Jewish retirement home in 1978, the Pope was a much more distant figure than he would be to almost any of us today.

The day in question came when the conclave of Cardinals was meeting for the second time in little more than a month to elect a Pope --- John Paul I (Albino Luciani), remember, had died after only 33 days in office. These papal elections were getting wall-to-wall coverage on TV. And such blanket coverage was a far rarer occurence in the days before CNN and cable news than it is today when almost any drama gets the 24-7 treatment.

My recollection has no particular or greater consequence. And I mention it mainly because to me it symbolizes the fact that even as a man of 36 I have no real living memory of any Pope other than this man.

At an earlier point in my life I was much more interested in and immersed in religious and theological questions --- out of both academic and personal interest. So these are issues that I thought more about then than I do now. But thinking of John Paul II today I have a feeling of great respect and even an element of reverence but also, with all that, very mixed feelings.

On first blush, I think of all the ways he brought the Catholic Church into the modern world --- and, in this sense, I mean not so much Catholicism (Vatican II did that) but the institutional church and the papacy. I think most of his ecumenicism and the truly epochal changes he wrought in the Roman Catholic Church’s relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people, symbolized by his visit to the Synagogue of Rome in 1986. I think of his ecumenical dialogue with Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy or his preaching at a Lutheran Church in 1983 --- an almost inconceivable event for someone steeped in the history of Early Modern Europe and the Reformation.

I think also of his ambivalent political legacy in the Third World. On the one hand he was hostile, even authoritarian in the measures he employed, toward Liberation Theology in Latin America. And yet he also made great strides in elevating that strain of Catholicism which, in the Third World especially, has always been on the side of the poor and the powerless (where it should be), and diminishing that often dominant portion which casts its lot with the wealthy and the powerful (where it has so often been).

Separate from all these individual points John Paul II has simply been a towering figure -- a perception that I imagine will grow as he recedes into history. And that is a striking thing in itself since he was a compromise candidate; and the Cardinals probably didn't have a clear sense of what they were getting into when they chose him.

Yet in recent years especially (and this isn’t to say that the traditionalist dimension of John Paul’s pontificate hasn’t been there from the beginning --- witness his special relationship with the deeply reactionary Opus Dei) his focus on family and sexual traditionalism has seemed to push most of this to the side, even to override it where they came into any tension, creating a papacy which viewed the whole world through the prism of a few key questions surrounding reproduction, sex and death and in some cases, in my opinion, verging or lapsing into a theological obscurantism.

I know this is a very broad brush for a very big subject. And I also recognize that there is a perspective from which these different elements of John Paul’s tenure and teaching --- even seemingly disparate or contradictory ones --- all fit together into a unified whole, a seamless cloth. So these thoughts aren’t offered as anything definitive or complete; they’re merely reflections for this day. So let me set all of that aside for the moment.

This article in the Times of London seemed a particularly rich summing-up of the Pope's transition out of life. The author captures the mix of a waiting world and also this small, passing moment in the Pope's quarters -- he and a few others presumably -- as they wait for the end.

The atmosphere of the moment also makes me think of the point Andrew Sullivan has made so eloquently in recent days with respect to the Schiavo case: that life is not an unqualified good at all times and under all circumstances. Nor is death, by extension, an unqualified evil. Indeed, in a Christian worldview it is almost unimaginable that death can be seen as such. And yet much of the commentary on Schiavo from the right seems almost to embrace that view -- leading to what Andrew -- if I remember correctly -- called not so much a respect for life as its fetishisation.

"This evening or this night," said Angelo Comastri, the vicar general for Vatican City, today, "Christ opens the door to the Pope." In the death of a man like the Pope for whom those words aren't a consolation or metaphor but life's deepest reality, what's possible for those watching and waiting is not just a tearful grief moving toward acceptance but a latent joy.

To TPM's Catholic readers let me extend a very sincere message and feeling of respect, condolence and solidarity in this moment of loss and grief and a shared hope for renewal and rebirth.