Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

David Winston, Republican pollster, Roll Call, March 8th: "Bush, in his State of the Union address, began to lay the predicate for the Social Security discussion. Polling data nearly across the board shows that Bush’s Social Security blitz in the past few weeks has convinced the majority of Americans that Social Security needs fixing now."

CNN/USAToday poll analysis, USAToday, March 2nd: "In early January, Americans divided evenly when asked whether Social Security needs major changes in the next year or two. Now 59% say it doesn't need to be changed right away."

Are Democrats pursuing a shortsighted policy by simply opposing the president's drive to phase out Social Security, as a few are now suggesting?

I feel confident that the answer to that question is, no.

Only I don't think the Democrats are just saying, no. They're staking out a clear position in support of preserving Social Security and its guaranteed benefits rather than phasing it out and replacing it with private accounts.

But inside that question are a host of different subsidiary questions and assumptions. And they're worth discussing. So let me start discussing a few of them now.

First, some suggest that without having a clear counter-proposal on the table, Democrats risk having President Bush outflank them by dropping privatization and claiming a victory with some more limited reform.

But consider what this means and what the objectives are of people who are opposing the president's effort to phase out Social Security.

To my thinking, the prime objective of preventing the president from phasing out Social Security is preventing the president from phasing out Social Security.

The potential opportunities for the Democrats are immense, no doubt. And I hope they materialize as much as anyone. But they are, at the end of the day, secondary. If President Bush were somehow able to abandon privatization and wholesale benefit cuts, embrace a sensible reform package that would enhance the longterm solvency of Social Security and somehow frame this as a political victory, that would be a bummer for Democrats, as Democrats. If he were really successful at spinning this as a success, it would also be unfortunate in that it would give him a renewed ability to pursue other parts of his legislative agenda. But the aim here I think is to prevent the president from phasing out Social Security. So if he chooses to embrace the program and say that's what he wanted all along, I can only say that there are simply worse scenarios I can imagine than that.

On a more concrete level, I don't think the comparison between this debate and the president's turnabout on the Department of Homeland Security is a particularly compelling one. Neither conservatives nor Republicans had any ideological or principled investment in 'Homeland Security' being an office in the White House rather than a cabinet department. Nor did any Republican constituency have a vested interest in his initial stand. This was purely a decision made within the White House, for a series of contigent reasons, but principally to limit congressional oversight and enhance executive branch power. Once the president changed his tune, all the Republicans changed their tunes, because their only agenda all along had been supporting their president on a partisan basis.

The situation with Social Security is very, very different. And the president's room for maneuver is not that great. Any substantial move on the president's part should expose deep fissures within his governing coalition -- a number of which have already appeared.

More globally, I think these 'political' questions (like 'why has the president not been damaged more' or 'how can the Democrats be sure not to be outmaneuvered') are premature. In the past I've written about how Democrats have been weakened politically in recent decades (particularly on national security issues) by placing too much focus on political outcomes and not enough on policy goals. My point here isn't really one of idealism. It is merely to note that an over-emphasis on political outcomes -- and the policy shiftiness required for trimming to secure good ones -- reaches a point of diminishing returns and can become self-defeating. (Pace Mr. Klein, this is not an issue of ideological purity, regardless of what may immediately spring to your mind. It is a matter of deciding on your goal, choosing policies that will acheive it, and then pursuing those policies.)

The truth is that Democrats do have a goal here. There very much is something they stand for. And for those who don't, they should. That is, protecting and enhancing the retirement security of all Americans. Everything that advances that goal should be seen as a victory and everything that diminishes it should be seen as a defeat. At present, through their unity and advocacy, Democrats have significantly reduced the chances of a phase-out bill passing in the 109th Congress. Even at this early stage, that's a big victory.

Again, I am not so naive to say that Democrats should pursue a policy agenda and leave the politics to take care of itself. But consider the following. The hook for some of this second-guessing about Democratic strategy is a memo out a few days ago from James Carville and Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps. And in that memo they argue that the deeper vulnerability for Democrats (and why they are yet to derive greater political returns on Social Security) is what they call "voters' deeper feelings about the Democrats who appear to lack direction, conviction, values, advocacy or a larger public purpose."

Well, here's the deal. Spin has its limits. You show voters that you have direction and conviction and values principally by having them. And for all the short- and medium-term political handicapping, I believe that's what they are doing right now.

What the Democrats need to do now is think seriously and creatively among themselves about why a program like Social Security is so important and what the principles and priorities gleaned from that examination suggest in terms of other policies they should be advocating and pursuing. As for what they're doing in the political arena right now, I think it's just right.

Later, we'll discuss what the Dems can learn for stage two of the Social Security fight from how they dealt with stage one.

Rep. Gene Taylor (D) of Mississippi on the president's reckless fiscal policies: "We are now over $2 trillion deeper in debt than we were four years ago. The interest payment, alone, on the debt is $1 billion every day. People talk about morals; well, it's immoral to take people's money and it's immoral to stick our children with the bill."

Another Democrat leaves the Fainthearted Faction: Rep. Ike Skelton (D) of Missouri.

In a letter now going out to constituents he says that Social Security "is a guaranteed insurance policy that must never be weakened by risky privatization plans like the one supported by the Bush Administration ... While the proposal is touted as a way to 'save' Social Security, private accounts would worsen the program's fiscal challenges."

According to the Times, the <$NoAd$> Social Security Trust Fund is a bit of an afterthought.

The US Treasury bonds held in the Trust Fund may be give Social Security a better claim on federal revenues than other priorities. But maybe not.

As Timesman David Rosenbaum puts it ...

But trust fund or no trust fund, bonds or no bonds, Social Security is only one program with a claim on the federal budget.

There will be highways to build and, perhaps, wars to fight. There will be expenses for education and health care and many other government activities. And there will be citizens - voters - who do not want their taxes to be raised.

Maybe because of the trust fund, the politicians will decide that Social Security has the strongest claim.

But if so, that will be a political decision, not a legal one.

In other words, it's all a big misunderstanding.

We're hoping someone can help us with this. Following up on yesterday evening's post on Joe Klein's comments yesterday on Meet the Press, we are hoping some TPM Reader can provide us with an example from Klein's writing (columns, magazine articles, even public comments) in which he explains his contention that whereas Social Security was suited to the 'industrial age' it is not well suited to the 'information age', whereas a private accounts system is.

To refresh memories on the key passage ...

I agree with Paul in that private accounts have nothing to do with solvency and solvency is the issue. I disagree with Paul because I think private accounts a terrific policy and that in the information age, you're going to need different kinds of structures in the entitlement area than you had in the industrial age. But it is very hard to do that kind of change under these political circumstances where you have the parties at such loggerheads.

If anyone knows of an example where <$NoAd$> he explains this argument, please send it along.

And then there were four!

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of <$NoAd$>Louisiana has been hanging on by a thread in the Fainthearted Faction for weeks, largely on the basis of an early refusal to rule out private accounts categorically.

But she signed the recent letter the Dems sent to the president. And she put out this press release on Friday which settles the matter. The key points read ...

I agree with Treasury Secretary Snow on one very important point: We do need to strengthen retirement security in our nation. All Americans deserve the confidence that their retirement will be secure -- that Social Security will be there as promised, their 401(k) plans won't be raided through unscrupulous practices, and their pensions won't be squandered by reckless corporate management.

The President's plan doesn't seek to address any of these concerns. It is too narrowly focused and creates too much risk by betting hard-earned savings on an ever-changing stock market when we should be working to add certainty and stability to the system. I agree that we must expand opportunities for retirement saving, but we must not undermine this worthy effort with a flawed privatization scheme that takes the 'security' out of 'Social Security.'

We in Louisiana understand strong retirement security, and have about 350,000 state and municipal workers enrolled in a public pension plan that encourages savings and financial stability. I will oppose any federal proposal which changes or undermines this program, just as I intend reject any proposal which cuts Social Security benefits or adds to our already rising and troubling deficit.

I look forward to my meeting next month with Secretary Snow, and hope for a productive discussion on Social Security and the mounting national debt.

From the totality of evidence, for us, that takes Landrieu out of the Fainthearted Faction.

ABC's The Note does love the Washington establishment's CW when it comes to phasing out Social Security. Take a look at their read of the state of play today.

This is a topic I haven't discussed or dug much into in the last year or more -- the right-leaning dinner-party centrism of establishment Washington -- but it really oozes from this update linked above.

Because of where I was staying this morning I was able to catch only one brief bit of the Sunday shows. And that was the roundtable on Meet the Press.

It was a good panel, including one of my favorite reporters, Mike Allen of the Post. But what caught my eye were two exchanges. One was between Joe Klein and Paul Krugman on the Clinton legacy. Here's the key exchange ...

MR. KRUGMAN: I think it's just wildly up in the air. I mean, you know, there's enormous turmoil on the Democratic side trying to figure out--there's a lot of unity but there's a lot of turmoil about what the party stands for. And I just don't know. I mean, I can't--I dread the prospect of a Clinton run just because I think that would be--it would be an attempt to recreate the politics of the '90s when you had Bill Clinton, who was a president who managed to sort of triangulate. And I think we ought to have an election that's really about what what kind of country we're going to be and we won't have that if it's Hillary Clinton running.


MR. KLEIN: Paul, I have a question for you: What was it about the peace and prosperity of the eight years of the Clinton administration that you didn't like?

MR. KRUGMAN: No, I liked the way the country ran.

MR. KLEIN: I think that he had a real governing philosophy. It wasn't triangulation. It was moving us from the industrial age to the information age, and that's where the Democratic Party is going to have to move...

MR. KRUGMAN: There's a radical right...

MR. KLEIN: ...if it wants to have any role in American politics.

MR. KRUGMAN: There's a radical right challenge to America as we know it that's under way, and I think the Democrats--I mean, maybe Hillary Clinton can do this. I'm actually not opposed to her, right? But they need to make clear that they are going to turn back that tide, not blur it.

MR. KLEIN: The answer to a radical right challenge isn't a reactionary left response.

Marshall Wittman unequivocally gives the prize to Joe Klein on this one. But I'd like to offer what is not so much a disagreement as a different interpretation of just what was <$Ad$>being talked about here.

I won't assume I know precisely what Paul meant. But my reaction on watching this was that the two were basically talking past each other, or perhaps that Klein was attacking an argument that Paul really hadn't made.

Again, I won't presume to speak for Paul. But here's my sense of this.

I was a big fan of Bill Clinton while he was president. Still am. And that doesn't just mean I liked him in some general sense as a political fan. On most policy issues, foreign and domestic, I was in line with his administration.

But I too think Clintonism is best left in the 1990s. And that's not because I've changed my view of his presidency or his policies. I simply think we were are operating in a profoundly different political moment and that the strategies and tactics that really did make sense then do not make sense now. The key point for me is that the difference is really not at heart an ideological one. And thus, to me, Klein's reference to a 'reactionary left' I think mistakes the point Krugman was making.

I want to leave the longer discussion of this issue to another post. But just to briefly describe what I'm getting at. First, we are now involved in political contests that cut to the very heart of the kind of polity we live in. Many are simply not compromisable. And I don't mean that merely or mainly in the sense that they involve points of principle that can't be compromised. I mean many are literally uncompromisable. They involve basic decisions over which way our society will go. Decisions must be made. When the boat is leaving the dock, at one point you've got to decide: stay on the dock or hop on the boat. It can't be compromised. There has to be a choice.

Second, and of course on a related level, the Democrats' position is profoundly different than it was in the 1990s, even given the fact that they lost control of Congress mid-decade. I often think that one of the blinders of folks who cut their teeth in the Clinton White House is an inability to grasp just how many of the strategies that worked for them then were tied to the overwhelming fact of holding the White House.

I know they know that at some level. But I sometimes wonder how deeply the point has sunk in because I've seen more than a few of them using similar approaches in opposition when they have little hope of success. It's sort of like in the childhood game 'King of the Hill'. Imagine if you'd perfected tactics for when you're on the top of the hill knocking off challengers and then tried to use those same approaches when you're one of the guys down at the bottom. It makes no sense.

The other exchange came earlier in the roundtable when Klein let us know that he is still every bit a private accounts man. (One would imagine the only Woody Guthrie biographer to embrace such an unfortunate stance..) But I was struck by his rationale ...

Well, it's kind of amazing and somewhat amusing to see the Republicans so much on the defensive on this issue right now. It's an unusual circumstance. I agree with Paul in that private accounts have nothing to do with solvency and solvency is the issue. I disagree with Paul because I think private accounts a terrific policy and that in the information age, you're going to need different kinds of structures in the entitlement area than you had in the industrial age. But it is very hard to do that kind of change under these political circumstances where you have the parties at such loggerheads.

This has always struck me as the weakest of arguments for privatization and frankly it seems beneath someone like Klein.

I would like to ask Klein what it is exactly about Social Security that makes it appropriate to the industrial age but not the information age. If it is phased out in the next few years that would be one objective sign that it couldn't withstand the politics of this new economic era. But that would be a circular argument.

If anything I would think there's a much stronger argument that Social Security with its guaranteed benefits is more suited to this age than the last one, given how the increasingly transitory nature of work and the pressures of globalization are undermining the basis of defined benefit private sector pensions.

The real point, though, is that when you set aside all the practical matters of debt and transition costs, this is an ideological debate -- or to put it less antiseptically, a debate over different sets of values.

The idea behind private accounts is that people should rely on themselves alone and bear the consequences of their successes and their failures and random chance on their own shoulders. If things don't pan out for you in retirement, that's something to take up with your children.

The concept behind Social Security is fundamentally different. The first premise is that if you put in a lifetime's work there is simply a level of destitution below which society will not let you fall. Maybe you made so little during your working years that there wasn't enough to save. Or maybe you just didn't plan ahead well enough. Or maybe you suffered some misfortune. Whatever. If you worked you won't be destitute when you retire. People who made big bucks through their lives don't get a particularly good 'deal' from Social Security, if you insist on seeing it in investment terms. But that's a distorting prism, sort of like thinking you got a rotten deal on your medical insurance if you never have a catastrophic illness.

I like to think of this as the moral equality of work. In our society, we allow the market to assign all manner of different cash values to different sorts of work or even the same sorts of work under different circumstances. And by and large, within some very small limitations like the minimum wage or certain non-discrimination laws, most of us think this is how it should be. I certainly do. (In this sense, I think collective bargaining amounts to another competitive arrangement within a market economy -- though doctrinaire free market folks have always seen it in contrary terms.)

But the cash value of work isn't the same as its moral value. And if you look at the values imbedded in all those Social Security actuarial tables, you see this principle: whether you were a janitor or a fast-food worker or a doctor or a tycoon, if you worked during your working years you shouldn't be left destitute when your working years are over (retirement) or when, through no fault of your own, you can't work anymore (disability). No matter what. The common denominator is a life of work -- skilled or unskilled, impressive or unimpressive, remembered or forgotten. It doesn't matter.

In any case, that's only one way to look at it. More prosaically, you might just say that there are certain risks we choose to share across society. And this is one of them.

These are basic disagreements about how much we owe each other, how interconnected we are. And they're real disagreements with smart folks on either side. They existed in the 1930s; they exist today; and they'll exist in 2030s. The Internet and floating currencies and total quality management -- none of them settle the question. Klein should have the courage of his values and not pass this off on gizmos and gadgets.