Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Hillary tells the president, No Dice, when it comes to a Social Security phase-out.

In a letter the New York senator is now sending out to constituents who ask her position on Social Security, she writes "I oppose diverting money from the Social Security program to establish private accounts."

Now, don't get me wrong. I doubt there was ever much chance Hillary was going to end up on the wrong side of this issue. But an article that is running today in CQ shows why it's important, even for those like Senator Clinton, to make the point crystal clear.

Here's the beginning of the piece and then a section further down on Senator Clinton's position ...

Three prominent Democrats are making clear they will not support President Bush’s proposal to divert some Social Security payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts, dealing the administration a setback as it engages in a campaign to build public support for an overhaul.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is sending letters to constituents who ask about her position on the president’s proposal stating: “I oppose diverting money from the Social Security program to establish private accounts.”


Advocates of the president’s plan had held out hope that Clinton might eventually be convinced to support creating personal accounts in Social Security. She is one of the most famous people in Congress; her national profile and popularity is such that she is considered the undeclared front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. And she has made vague statements in the past saying Social Security should be “strengthened,” although she has not wedded herself to a solution.

Her letter should remove any doubts about her position. In it, she described the president’s proposal as “harmful to Americans” if enacted and said: “I am profoundly worried about the effect this proposal would have on New Yorkers who rely on Social Security.”

The piece in CQ notes the newly-stated opposition of Clinton as well as that of Senators Kennedy and Johnson. As CQ notes, "Each of the three senators who announced their opposition to Bush’s plan this week represents unique problems for the president[, though] Clinton’s statement is probably most significant."

Hillary's opposition, they explain, means the president will have neither of the New York senators, who represent Wall Street on his side. (On the other hand, plenty of Wall Streeters commute in from Connecticut. And the president clearly thinks Fainthearted Faction member Joe Lieberman's vote is still in play.) Kennedy's opposition sets a tone of Democratic conscience and history. And Johnston's stance makes clear that a senator from a very red state -- one that just turned out a senate minority leader -- doesn't have to feel the need to run scared on an issue like Social Security.

Indeed, quite the opposite. As I think we'll see increasingly over the next few months, making a tough and unabashed defense of Social Security gives senators like Johnson a chance to show that they are standing with their constituents' values and their material interests while President Bush is attacking both. (You can see Johnson's statement from yesterday on his website here.) We'll have to wait and see if Senator Landrieu gets the word.

Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota on the current state of the president's Social Security phase-out bill.

“Right now, to be very candid with you, we don’t have broad Republican support let alone bipartisan support for [President Bush's] plan that was outlined during the campaign.”

And could it happen this year?

“It could. But uhhh … Y’know, and the Vikings could win the Super Bowl this year. I mean the chances are not 50-50, let me be honest with you.”

The quotes come from Rep. Ramstad's interview on Minnesota Public Radio Monday morning.

(ed.note: If you're interested in listening yourself, the quotes come at 30:18 and 34:14 in the recording.)

Ford fixin' for a showdown with the folks at Cato?

The last we heard of Fainthearted Faction member Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee, he was telling us that whatever the Cato Institute might think or be telling others, he didn't support their Social Security phase-out plan. "I do not support changing the Social Security system as has been proposed by President Bush," he said in a statement released on December 30th, "nor do I support Social Security proposals advanced by the CATO Institute. In fact, both of these proposals have the potential to harm current beneficiaries by paying for the transition costs by issuing debt."

Now, we notice, though, that Rep. Ford is listed as giving the luncheon address on day two of the Cato Institute's "Social Security: The Opportunity for Real Reform" conference on February 8th and 9th.

We think it's great that Ford is taking this opportunity to give them a piece of his mind.

Late Update: We note that the program says 'invited' by his name. So has Ford even accepted the invite?

Even Later Update: Late this afternoon Rep. Ford's office informed TPM that the congressman is actually not delivering this speech, and that he declined Cato's invitation last week. See this subsequent post for the details.

Does Rep. Mark Foley of Florida have something he wants to <$NoAd$> tell us?

A few clips ...

AP, December 22nd, 2004 ...

"To be crassly political, there's nothing in it for members of Congress," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., predicting that supportive lawmakers would face television ads accusing them of gutting Social Security when they run for re-election. "It will be a very, very tough sell for the president."

LaHood, a moderate who coasted to re-election in November, is not alone. Of the 232 Republicans who will serve in the House next year, at least 125 to 150 will need "a lot of hand-holding," said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who said he supports Bush's push.

Tom Blackburn, Cox News Service, dateline West Palm Beach, January 2nd, 2005 ...

It's impossible, though, to prepare a sound criticism of Mr. Bush's plan until he reveals it. Strategically, he seems to be trying to get everyone to accept it before anyone can prepare a sound criticism. He keeps saying that current and near-future retirees will get their Social Security payments as promised.

I lost track of how many times Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., made that point when he was on Steve Pomeranz's show on WXEL. A lot, though. That's nice to hear, although current and soon-to-be recipients do have to take it on faith that Mr. Bush can borrow all that money to keep the promise.

Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, January 5th, 2005 ...

Veteran members of the House from Florida were lining up on both sides of key issues on Tuesday.

Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach, said he hopes Democrats at least will consider changes to Social Security so it can remain solvent for decades to come. He said private accounts should not be ruled out.

Investors Business Daily, January 6th, 2005 ...

Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., another supporter, says there are 125-130 GOP lawmakers who will need "a lot of hand-holding."

"I hear a lot from my colleagues, "Bush doesn't have to run again. We do. Why don't we kick the can down the road?' " Foley said.

Foley just got reelected with almost 70% of the vote in his district. Then again this handy page on the Social Security Administration website says Foley's 16th district has the 5th largest concentration of Social Security recipients (178,715) in the state.

(Are you glad you found that page? You could say that.)

Late Update: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that the 16th district has the 4th highest concentration of Social Security recipients. It has the 5th highest.

Only just barely, but freshman Washington state Republican Rep. Dave Reichert sounds like he's in the Conscience Caucus.

The Tri-City Herald reports that Reichert told them "he was intrigued by the idea of personal accounts, but was reluctant to add to the federal deficit."

You think Marty Frost should be the next chair of the DNC? Or maybe you're for Simon Rosenberg? Or Donnie Fowler? Or maybe Howard Dean?

But let's be honest. Who cares what you think? You don't have a vote.

For all the crackling enthusiasm ones sees across the web or in various new activist groups for this or that candidate, as Howard Wolfson lamented last month in the Times, only the 440 members of the Democratic National Committee have any say in the matter. They're the only ones who have a vote.

As this page on the DNC website explains, those 440 DNC members are a mix of state party officials and bigwigs, a smattering of office-holders nationwide, various folks appointed by the sitting chairman and others.

Like Howard, I think it would be a bad idea just to throw the whole thing open to some sort of national party primary. Choosing from amongst the elected officials of the state parties adds experience and consensus-building to the equation. It also makes for various sorts of diversity, though not in all respects. But certainly active, rank-and-file Democrats should have some say in the matter, especially now when there seems to be more widespread and impassioned interest in the choice then there's been in a very long time.

Obviously, it's too late to change the rules now. But if you do have a candidate, find out who the DNC members are in your state and let them know what you think, what you want. There are also members chosen from different constituencies and different sectors of government. Find out about them too.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't a knock against party officials, as such. And I think smoke-filled rooms (or, given our Democratic sensibilities today, I guess, non-smoke-filled rooms) have more to recommend them than we sometimes imagine. But this is a big decision for Democrats, one that will help shape the party in a period when Democrats are both coming off intensely demoralizing defeats but also witnessing what I believe are exciting signs of new vibrancy and growth. This one's too important to be left to the vagaries of chits and glad-handing.

Do reporters respond when the president tells flagrant lies?

(No, it's not a trick question.)

Today the president said: "Most younger people in America think they'll never see a dime [from Social Security]. Probably an exaggeration to a certain extent. But a lot of people who are young, who understand how Social Security works, really do wonder whether they'll see anything."

The president says it's "an exaggeration to a certain extent" to say that younger people today don't think they'll ever get any money from Social Security, despite the fact that they pay over 12% (employees' and employers' contributions combined) out of every paycheck into the program.

I'm thirty-five, though not for much longer. So I hope I don't flatter myself too greatly to include myself among the "younger people" to whom President Bush is referring. So, God willing, I will turn 67 in February 2036.

According to the Trustees, using very pessimistic estimates of future economic growth, Social Security will be able to pay full benefits until 2042. After that, incoming revenue, they say, will be able to pay for at least 70% of my benefits. In other words, I'm good until I'm 73, after which my benefits could drop by as much as 30% if the US economy does really poorly over the next 35 years and no one does anything whatsoever with Social Security until then.

On the other hand, the Congressional Budget Office, under the leadership of former Bush White House senior economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, says I'll have no problem until 2052, when I'll be 83. After that, they say, there will be a reduction, but again not an overwhelming one.

Bear in mind of course, as we've said again and again, if the US economy just keeps growing at the rate it has for the last hundred years or more, any problems are likely a good deal further out into the future.

So, what does this tell us? According to relatively pessimistic forecasts, two government agencies -- one of which is part of a Republican administration and the other under the oversight of a Republican congress -- say I'll get my full benefits for either the first five years of my retirement or the first fifteen years. After that, if nothing changes at all, I'll probably keep drawing three-quarters of my benefits. And even if I'm only drawing that three-quarters it'll still be more than today's retirees draw even in inflation-adjusted dollars.

This disconnect suggests one of three possibilities.

One is that the president has been briefed on certain highly classified budget projections which show a far more dire situation than the government's non-classified budgeting estimates would have us believe. We'll call this the secret evidence hypothesis.

Another possibility is that President Bush believes that the US government will default on the Treasury notes held by the Social Security Administration. Let's call this the Harken Energy hypothesis.

If it's neither of these we can only conclude that as he has done repeatedly before, this president is deceiving the people he has sworn to serve and defend in order to achieve a policy goal he cannot manage by honest means.

Indeed, it is still more cynical and deliberate than that. The president knows he can't say, "No one will get any benefits after 2030, so help me replace Social Security with private accounts." So, just as he and his associates did during the build up to the Iraq war, he uses paraphrases, work-arounds and slippery repetitons to communicate the intended falsehood while still providing himself with sufficient wiggle room to evade being tagged as a liar.

So here, for instance, he states that young people think they'll never collect Social Security benefits. Then he says that's "probably an exaggeration to a certain extent." And then he goes on to say that it's precisely the young people who are knowledgable about Social Security who think this. The clear implication, the meaning he intends to convey, is that this dire prediction is at least more true than not, when in fact, as we've noted, to the extent we can know anything about the future, it's not even close to being true.

Like I said, do reporters call him on it? Even toss a question to McClellan?

Late Update: According to the LAT, the president told one 27 year old at his Social Security event, "At your age [Social Security] will be bust by the time it comes for you to retire." And then later, "If you're 20 years old, in your mid-20s, and you're beginning to work, I want you to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt, unless the United States Congress has got the willingness to act now."

It's certainly what he wants them to think. Chief Executive as confidence man.