Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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.

Cokie Roberts, on the case for the White House, from this morning's Morning Edition ...

Steve Inskeep: “Democrats are promising to defeat President Bush’s proposed solution, or partial solution anyway, this imposition of private accounts. Do they have the power to stop it?”

Cokie Roberts: “Well you see, by saying ‘private accounts’ you’ve already entered the debate, as far as the White House is concerned. They’re calling them ‘personal accounts’ not ‘private accounts’ to just try to change the rhetoric so that seniors again will not get frightened.”

In fairness, the rest of her commentary on the subject wasn't that bad. But do journalists really have to genuflect every time the White House issues a new vocabulary directive?

I guess it was only a matter of time.

We've been watching the ranks of the Fainthearted Faction thinning week by week. Heck, it seems like Sen. Lieberman may even have left now (our Faction parliamentarian is still analyzing the Daily Show transcript).

So with the decreasing chances that they'll get any congressional Democrats beside the perfidious Rep. Allen Boyd it was probably inevitably that they'd start courting congressional Democrats who've already died.

The Post has the story.

P.S. As long as we're on the subject of Allen Boyd, we might speculate that there's some chance ole' Allen is looking for a way to climb back in from his solitary Democratic Social Security phase-out branch. Do you have the chops to write the strategy memo that'll help Boyd turn tail while still holding on to some shred of dignity? Stay tuned.

As we've discussed several times now, <$NoAd$> Tim Russert's key role in shaping Washington conventional wisdom from his privileged perch on Meet the Press makes his views on and understanding of Social Security an important factor in how the Social Security phase-out debate will unfold.

On Sunday we flagged this question that Russert asked Bill Thomas, but now we have the official transcript ...

Many specific questions about Social Security. Right now we have a cost-of-living increase, a COLA increase, that is tied more to wages than actual inflation. It is inaccurate by everyone's estimation. Should that be adjusted in order to be accurate and specifically related to inflation?

Which two very different issues does Russert appear to be confusing here?

Late Update: Drats, Atrios has already let the cat outta the bag. But, still, if Russert's such an entitlements policy maven and doing all the crucial interviews, shouldn't he have a better handle on what's being discussed?

There was a lot to pick through in Chairman Bill Thomas's appearance yesterday on Meet the Press. But let's not let one thing get lost in the mix. Thomas restated his suggestion that we consider instituting a system of racial classification into the Social Security benefit structure.

You can't say this is anti-racial minority exactly since Thomas's logic -- if you can call it that -- seems to suggest that at least blacks would get to retire earlier than whites and possibly hispanics too. It's just moronic -- and that still must count for at least somewhat of a bad thing.

Thomas's idea of penalizing female recipients for their longer lifespans, which certainly caught on like wildfire, would at least be pretty easy to administer since -- setting aside the standards applied in some graduate English and critical studies programs -- the number of Americans whose gender is truly ambiguous is rather small.

But what about race? Does Thomas want the SSA actuaries to dust off the old racial classification systems from the Old South or limpieza de sangre codes from colonial Latin America with their comic and hideous lists of "mulattoes" (one-half) and "quadroons" (one fourth) and even "octoroons" (one-eighth) depending on one's precise mixture of white and black 'blood'?

What about Hispanics and Asians? And will those clean-living Mormons be adequately penalized for living so damn long? Perhaps some folks could lock in early retirement in advance if they signed binding SSA contracts agreeing to smoke and booze it up through their middle-years.

Yes, sure, this is a reductio ad absurdum. But really, it's pretty absurd. And these are the folks who can't brook the concept of affirmative action?

Okay, our privatization <$NoAd$>flimflam project is off to a good start. We've already got four entrants who've earned enough points for their own Special Edition Privatize This! TPM T-Shirt. And a half-dozen or more others have gotten at least a few points toward the magic T-Shirt number of ten.

(The shirt winners got their merchandise for bagging Sean Hannity, Bob Novak, Rep. Chris Chocola (R) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R).)

If you have no idea what we're talking about, click here for the announcement from last week. Or if you don't have the time or energy for that, which we'd certainly understand, just take our word for it that we're giving away cool anti-privatization T-Shirts for readers who find examples of Social Security phase-out supporters claiming that the word 'privatization' is some sort of Democrat-inspired slur against the beauty that is private accounts even though that was the term they themselves used until the RNC found out it made the policy unpopular with voters.

The RNC et al. have already been successful at bullying a slew of reporters out of even using the word by claiming that doing so represents some sort of liberal bias.

Inside baseball? Yeah, you could say that. But we think it's one piece of pro-Social Security phase-out monkey-business worth blowing out of the water right now. And, in any case, we think the T-shirts are cool.

Since Friday we've also had a bunch of queries from readers about whether the T-Shirts will also be on sale for those who can't make the time to sit in front of their computers for hours buzzing through google and nexis. And, yes, for those of you who would like acquire your Special Edition Privatize This! TPM T-Shirt strictly through the cash-nexus, we'll be selling them too.

The image there on the right, in case you were wondering, is the graphic that appears on the back of the shirts. If you click on the picture you can see a somewhat larger version of it.

Discuss and be fruitful, saith the Chairman ... On Meet the Press this morning Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R) of California was so incoherent and off-message that it was hard for me to believe he wasn't a Democrat.

As for Russert, I noticed his grudging coming-around on a few points of not prejudicing the argument with pro-phase-out vocabulary.

But how about Russert's statement on the wage-indexing of Social Security benefits as opposed inflation-indexing? Russert said this method is “inaccurate by everyone’s estimation. Should that be adjusted in order to be accurate and specifically related to inflation?”

Somehow I thought that was up for debate?

Most telling quote of the day from Chairman Thomas: “To immediately say that [changing from wage-indexing to inflation-indexing of benefits] is a cut in benefits is a label that could be placed on anything that we did … The terms that we use need to be watched because if you want to create a black and white disruption of the ability to try to solve the problem then you use certain words. If you want to be part of the solution you have to be careful of the words that you choose.”

[ed.note: Transcription courtesy of TPM-DVR-Enabled Impromptu Transcription Service (TM).]

A very handy resource giving a rundown of each congressional district by numbers of Social Security recipients, percentages of the voting age population, etc.

Just a few nuggets we've awarded points for so far.

Rep. Chris Chocola (R) of Indiana before word came down from party <$NoAd$>headquarters (Nov. 1, 2000) ...

Bush's plan of individual investment of 2 percent of the money is a start. Eventually, I'd like to see the entire system privatized. It's not a 'risky scheme.'

Rep. Chris Chocola (R) of Indiana after word came down from party headquarters (Sept. 3rd, 2002) ...

I do not support the privatization of Social Security.

Bob Novak before the word came down from party headquarters (Capitol Gang, Sept. 14th, 2002 where we find Mark Shields at mid-Outrage of the Week) ...

Mark Shields: In an Orwellian abuse of the language, conservatives, including even the respected Cato Institute, insist that they're now for Social Security choice, not for dreaded 'privatization'. Yes, and war is peace.

Robert D. Novak.

NOVAK: I'm still for privatization.

Bob Novak after the word came down from party headquarters (Crossfire, Oct. 28th, 2002) ...

[Democratic consultant] Steve McMahon: I thought they were accusing the Republicans of wanting to privatize Social Security which, after all, is what Republicans wanted.

NOVAK: That's a Democratic term.

Coming soon, Sean Hannity's unfortunate "privatization" problem.

[ed.note: Both Chocola quotations come from the South Bend Tribune in articles on the dates noted. TPM reader AG gets 10 points for bagging Rep. Chocola; JM gets 8 for Novak.]