Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Another follow-up on the Greenberg/Carville memo. And before proceeding, let me again stipulate that I think the thrust of what they say in it has been mistaken in some cases and tendentiously distorted in others.

That said, take this passage from the front of the memo, in which they ask why there has not been more fallout for the president from the public's very negative response to phase-out ...

This ought to be the Democrats’ moment, as the president’s Social Security proposal crashes against the wall of the public’s deep doubts. Support for the president’s proposal has fallen to 36 percent and perhaps even lower, depending on question wording. 1 Worse for the president, 40 percent of voters strongly oppose his plan, rising to 63 percent among seniors. Congressional Democrats are now winning voters over 45 years by 12 points, according to the NPR survey, after faltering badly among aging voters just 4 months earlier. But Bush’s plan is not that popular with younger voters who divide evenly on it.

So, we ask progressives to consider, why have the Republicans not crashed and burned? Why has the public not taken out their anger on the Congressional Republicans and the president? We think the answer lies with voters’ deeper feelings about the Democrats who appear to lack direction, conviction, values, advocacy or a larger public purpose.

So does this mean the Democrats <$Ad$>are being punished for not having their own 'plan'? For only saying 'no'? That can't possibly be what the authors' mean. And to know that you need only look at your calendar. The president is less than eight weeks into his second term as president. And over that period his approval on Social Security has collapsed. To imagine that what we should expect is that his presidency would now be mired in some crisis of legitimacy is ridiculous.

Believe me, give it time. If the Democrats handle this right, the political suffering of the president and his party has scarcely begun. And they should suffer mightily for pressing a policy that would carve a path of devastation through the American middle class.

The grafs above only make sense if what the two are talking about is a much longer-term problem of public fuzziness over just what Democrats stand-for. And that very much is a problem -- one that had no little to do with their losing the presidential contest in November. But this is why Democrats need to take the opportunity of the Social Security debate to outline their values, their vision of where the country should be going on Social Security and related issues. Flatly opposing phase-out is not the problem; it's the first step to the solution.

Should the Democrats come forward with their own 'plan' on Social Security? That's certainly what Republicans are saying. And it's a cry taken up now by many establishment pundits. Indeed, the strategy memo put out last week by Stan Greenberg and James Carville was widely seen as buying into that line of reasoning, though I think that's a misinterpretation (which I'll discuss later.)

The shortest version of an answer is simply 'no.' But I think there are really two questions here. And it's worth taking the time to distinguish them.

Not only do I think you could find very few Democratic politicians or strategists who think it's time for the Dems to step forward with a concrete counter-proposal on Social Security; if you were armed with truth serum, I'm certain you'd find no Republican strategists or pols who believe it is in the Democrats' interests to do so.

You needn't go any further to figure this out than the fact that the president has yet to step up and put a concrete proposal on the table. Until he does, Republicans who make this argument deserve nothing more than laughter. The White House has rather preferred to elaborate the president's proposal through a series of leaks so that he will always have some level of deniability when anyone tries to point out how bad a deal his plan would be for most Americans. When the president's plan is sinking like an anvil only a fool would think it was a wise course to put forward a more detailed proposal to distract from the collapse of the president's plan.

Another reason it makes no sense is that it buys into the essential dishonesty of the president's political argument -- namely, that we're now debating how to 'save' Social Security: He has a plan. So the Dems should have one too.

But, as we've argued repeatedly here, that's not what we're debating. As press commentary has belatedly but increasingly awakened to, what we're now debating is whether to keep Social Security or to replace it with private accounts. There's no sense -- as the Senate Dems have now rightly made clear --to getting into a debate over the details of how to strengthen the current program while we're still debating whether it should be preserved. Indeed, no debate over solvency is possible until an unequivocal agreement is made that the program will be preserved.

But there's another part of this 'have a plan' argument that I think was what the Greenberg/Carville memo was trying to get at. That is this: For the medium-term and long-term, this debate on Social Security provides Democrats with an opportunity far richer and more important than whatever political rewards may be reaped in 2006. It provides them with an opportunity -- perhaps best to say, a pivot point -- to begin explaining their larger and entirely distinct vision for where the country should go in the coming years. For years, for a host of reasons, Democrats have been afraid to do that. Now they should. This isn't a right-left issue within the Democratic party. It's more to do with the relative freedom of being an opposition party and how much President Bush has no exposed the GOP real values.

Now, I know I've dealt here in a lot of generalities. And I want to push the site in the direction of an expanded discussion of these questions in the coming weeks. But for the moment, just on the question of Social Security, let's say this: People who oppose the president's plan to phase-out Social Security should keep hammering on his proposal non-stop, from now until the ballot boxes close in California on election day in 2006. They should press the members of Congress who are defending it and yet don't have the guts to actually endorse it (folks like the Count and Rep. Ferguson in New Jersey). But while it would be foolish in the extreme to get baited into putting forth their own solvency plan, hammering the president for wanting to phase-out Social Security should go hand and hand with a discussion (amongst Democrats themselves, as much as anything) of what the broader Democratic vision for retirement security is. That goes beyond Social Security. It involves explaining just why it is Democrats are so determined to keep Social Security intact. It involves explaining how we can help middle class families save more for retirement. It means putting on the table the disastrous state of private-sector pensions.

This is a golden opportunity for Democrats to start explaining their vision of where we should be going as a society and how it differs from that of the Republicans'. That's what an opposition party does.

When the man makes a good point, the man makes a good point. From today's David Broder column: "Few policy battles, Social Security being a current example, draw enough public and press interest for the legislators to feel real scrutiny. Most are in a netherworld where media coverage is cursory and interest groups' pressure determines the outcome. That's how bankruptcy reform made it through the Senate and why it will soon pass the House and be signed into law by President Bush."

From the Washington Times, the second-guessing begins: "Conservatives in and out of Congress say President Bush has been taking bad advice on Social Security, hurting his chance to win private investment accounts for younger workers."

Also note this passage from the same article ...

The senior Republican senator said privately that the only way to avoid a bad deal on Social Security may be "to pull the trigger on the nuclear option."

This, he said, would mean changing Senate rules to force an end to Democratic filibusters and a vote on Mr. Bush's judicial nominees. The Democrats likely would retaliate by filibustering all Republican bills. Republicans then could blame Democrats for blocking Social Security reform.

Others say it is too early to abandon hope of passing the kind of Social Security plan that conservatives support.

"Once Americans understand the choices they have -- that they will own their personal retirement accounts and will be able to pass them on to loved ones, they will flock to personal retirement accounts," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican.

Some dreams die <$NoAd$>hard.

NYT: "Under the Bush administration, the federal government has aggressively used a well-established tool of public relations: the prepackaged, ready-to-serve news report that major corporations have long distributed to TV stations to pitch everything from headache remedies to auto insurance. In all, at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years, records and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government's role in their production."

I was remiss in not providing an update on whether Sen. Lugar (R) called for the hearing on John Bolton's nomination yesterday.

The State Department leaned on them heavily. But the calls made by concerned citizens from around the country made the difference. He didn't do it.

Steve Clemons has the details.

I took a moment tonight to read former Bush economic advisor Gregory Mankiw's brief for Social Security privatization in this week's New Republic. It's a companion piece to Jon Chait's article making a principled case for Democratic obstruction. The title of Mankiw's piece, or the subtitle, is 'Why Democrats Oppose Bush.'

I planned to write about it. And then I didn't know quite where to start. Given Mankiw's background he's obviously an intelligent and sophisticated man. And yet the arguments he adduces are gimmicky and puerile and laced with minor dishonesties all the way through. Two thirds of opposition to the president's plan, he reasons, is due to Bush hatred and Democrats' latent marxism. The remaining third is the result of paternalism. And he deals with that by noting that the Harvard faculty (of which he is a member) has a 401k-style defined-contribution pension plan. And they seem to like it. So why do Democrats (and the idea is that the Harvard faculty is roughly synonomous with Democrats) want to prevent people from having their Social Security replaced by a 401k-style private accounts system?

If it's good enough for the Harvard folks, why isn't it good enough for everyone else.

At this late stage of the game, there's probably little point in again noting that the Harvard faculty and everyone who has a 401k also has Social Security. And there are a slew of other rather elementary arguments why this is a silly comparison. But, again, you've heard those arguments already by now. And you can agree with them or decide that Mankiw's reasoning is more sound.

After sitting for a while with Mankiw's critique, though, a more salient point came to me. Conservatives have any number of explanations why Democrats don't like the president's plan: latent Marxism, political opportunism, contempt for the common man, and on and on. Believe those arguments or don't.

But liberals make up less than a quarter of the population. Democrats, defined by party ID, perhaps a bit more than a third. Yet every poll that comes out shows that clear and, by some measures, decisive majorities don't like the president's plan.

What's their beef?

I can understand why Mankiw wants to pick on Democrats. Because that other question is far more troublesome and difficult to answer.

You've probably seen already that former New Hampshire Republican party Executive Director, Chuck McGee was sentenced to seven months in prison yesterday for his role in the 2002 New Hampshire phone-jamming case.

Next up is Jim Tobin, former head of Bush-Cheney 2004 in New England, who TPM was first to report was a main conspirator in the case. He is now the only charged conspirator who has so far refused to cut a deal. He is scheduled to go on trial in June. McGee and fellow conspirator Allen Raymond are both expected to testify against him.

Keep an eye out, though, for what comes next. And whether it pulls in someone else with lofty ambitions in the next few years: Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee.

When Tobin organized this election-tampering scam he was working as the Northeast field director for the NRSC (the campaign committee of the Senate GOP). That was the cycle that Frist chaired the committee.

We hear that those involved in the phone-jamming scam are now claiming that the plan was aired with NRSC personnel in Washington in advance. If any of the key players are willing to testify to that effect when Tobin goes on trial later this year it could quickly open up a Washington dimension to this story.

Saving private accounts?

Or Saving Private W.?

Just, why is Karen Hughes coming back to the White House?

In his piece breaking the story today, Peter Baker notes sources who "said Hughes will not be a formal member of the White House staff but will take on a specific and particularly important assignment involving international affairs, but they would not identify it."

Color me skeptical.

Notwithstanding her communications assignment post-9/11, Hughes isn't a foreign affairs person. She's a politics and communications person. And a good one. Indeed, one who's always been in tension, if a collegial and productive one, with Karl Rove, as Dan Froomkin does a nice job explaining today.

And where does the president seem to need help right now? On the international front or the domestic politics front?


A new poll just out again puts the president's public approval on Social Security below 40%. This time 37% according to AP/IPSOS. The poll also shows that rather than cementing a new Republican governing majority, as Karl Rove has long argued for and planned, Social Security has split the current tenuous Republican majority right down the middle. The AP poll shows that the president is having problems with "independents, married women and Southerners."

Will Sen. Lugar give us the bum's rush on John Bolton?

Opposition to John Bolton's nomination to be Ambassador to the United Nations is widespread, if latent, even among some of the more sensible Republicans in the senate (not that that means they won't vote for him, mind you). And awareness and opposition to his nomination is picking up speed quickly outside Congress too.

But from what I'm told, much of this is going to come down to whether Sen. Richard Lugar (R), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calls for hearings on the nomination today. Senate procedures come in to play here. But basically, if Lugar calls for the hearing today, there's a six day notification rule. And that pretty much means that a quick committee hearing can be held next week and the full senate can rush Bolton through before there's a chance for there to be any serious debate over his qualifications or appropriateness for the job. If he doesn't call for it today the whole thing will get pushed into April.

Steve Clemons reports that the State Department is leaning heavily on Lugar to rush the thing through to avoid precisely that open debate. (Steve's a former senate staffer. So he knows the ins-and-outs of the place as well as anyone.)

If this is something you care about, stop by Steve's site now to find out more and see what you can do.