That's the thing with the Fainthearted Faction: if it's not one thing it's another. One minute they're finding ways to cozy up to President Bush to abolish Social Security and the next they're in another of their incessant leadership battles over who's going to be the chief of their motley crew.
So, for instance, we noted that yesterday the Dean of the Faction, Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. of Tennessee, had issued a statement stating clearly that he will not "support changing the Social Security system as has been proposed by President Bush, nor do I support Social Security proposals advanced by the CATO Institute ... [because] "both of these proposals have the potential to harm current beneficiaries by paying for the transition costs by issuing debt."
Now, let's be clear what Rep. Ford did and didn't say. He says he won't support the president's plan or the Cato plan because they want to fund the transition costs with a couple trillion dollars of new borrowing. But he's also quite careful to say that, in principle, he does still believe in a private accounts-based (partial) phase-out of Social Security. He just doesn't see any way to pay for it.
Given the current fiscal shape of the country that pretty much has to mean Ford's out of the Social Security phase-out business, at least for the foreseeable future, since where else are those trillions of dollars going to come from if not more good-old-fashioned Bush borrowing?
But one can at least imagine that Ford might sign on to Sen. Graham's plan, which envisions funding the transition costs of the phase-out by removing the 'cap' on payroll taxes for upper income earners and cracking down on corporate welfare.
So that's a definite possibility to consider. But at the end of the day, the Fainthearted Faction is about getting all wobbly in the knees when President Bush comes calling with all his Social Security abolition love talk. And even if Ford's statement doesn't quite get him out of the Faction, it's certainly a challenge to his leadership of the group.
And wouldn't you know it, just when Ford starts letting his guard down, here comes Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia to make his challenge. Just as Rep. Ford was issuing his statement against the Bush phase-out plan, one TPM reader-constituent was getting a letter in the mail from Rep. Moran.
Now, you probably know Jim Moran is in Faction because of his vote against the Filner amendment back in 2001. Aside from that, though, he's been a pretty low-profile member of the group.
But this TPM reader-constituent sent a note to Rep. Moran asking him whether he planned to support President Bush's phase-out plan given that he was a member of the Fainthearted Faction. The reader made it pretty clear that Moran would lose his support and even gain a new opponent if he did. But in the letter he sent in reply, Rep. Moran makes quite clear that the Social Security phase-out option is very much on the table for him. You can read the text of the letter for yourself, with its various paeans to the importance of Social Security and Medicare and how we have to save them.
But the closest he ever comes to any specifics about where he comes down on a private-accounts-based phase-out is when he says: "As Congress considers legislation that would affect the privatization, solvency, and benefits of these two crucial programs [Medicare and Social Security], I will certainly keep your thoughtful concerns in mind."
If that's not a bid for the leadership of the Faction, I don't know what is.
Now, here's what strikes me as particularly noteworthy about Moran's bid to displace Ford. Just this last cycle Moran faced a very serious challenger in the Democratic primary -- opposition that stemmed from various points of unpleasantness that cropped up over recent years.
He ended up winning the primary and then coasting to victory in his Democratic district. But when he was in that primary battle he banked a lot on the backing of Gov. Howard Dean (who Moran had endorsed at the height of the Dean surge) as well as his early opposition to the Iraq war.
It is often pointed out -- and rightly so -- that support for Gov. Dean in the Democratic primaries was not as clearly ideologically left as it was often portrayed in the media. (Dean, after all, was pretty much a centrist as governor of Vermont.) But his support was activist and oppositional. And in playing up both his support from Dean and his early opposition to the war, Moran was appealing to Democrats who are fed up with what many of them perceive as Democratic accomodationism in Washington.
So now we find out that after all that Moran is -- if I'm reading his constituent letter right -- one of very few Democrats in Congress who's not prepared to oppose the president's Social Security phase-out plan.