Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

In the week since Bob Matsui's untimely death, I've tried to separate the painful issue of his passing from our aggressive coverage of the emerging Social Security fight.

But Matsui was and would have been central to this fight, as the Democratic point-man on Social Security. So his passing means Democrats, or specifically House Democrats, must decide soon who will lead the charge against the president's Social Security phase-out plan -- in terms of strategy, message and, very importantly, as their public (i.e., media) voice on the issue.

Now, I was a bit distressed yesterday when I saw Rep. Ben Cardin of Maryland, who was next in line in seniority to Matsui on the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, quoted on the Bloomberg wire on President Bush's phase-out plan.

Saith Bloomberg ...

Representative Ben Cardin of Maryland, a senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee who is being courted by Republicans to support the accounts, said he would find it difficult to support the plan if its impact on the deficit, which reached a record $412 billion last year, isn't reflected in the budget.

"If he doesn't show how he's going to pay for it, then it's not a credible proposal from the point of view of, I think, most Democrats,'' Cardin said.

Now, I don't know about you. But that struck me as a tad equivocal. On its face, Cardin simply seemed to say that he couldn't support a phase-out bill if its costs weren't accurately reflected in the budget. But most Democrats stand in a rather more fundamental opposition -- as in opposing any phase-out plan, and especially one that will require adding one or two trillion dollars in debt.

I'm sure Cardin will come around to the right position. But it's not exactly a rousing defense of the program. And if Republicans even have the slightest inkling that they can turn the Dems' Social Security point-man over to the phase-out option, as Bloomberg suggests, something must be seriously amiss.

On the other hand, just one notch below Cardin on the subcommittee is Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota.

To the best of my recollection I've never met Pomeroy or spoken to him. But a friend of mine who knows this issue and the House very well tells me that Pomeroy not only has a deep belief in Social Security but also a deep and nuanced understanding of the program. He's also someone who can make a reasoned but also determined and persuasive case for preserving Social Security for the future. As I've said a hundred times already, party unity is critical on this issue, as is organizing. But at the end of the day they are a means to an end. And that end is persuading Americans across the country the defenders of Social Security are right on this issue and President Bush is wrong.

[An added plus with Pomeroy is that he comes from a really red state, but seems eager for this battle to protect Social Security. It is important to demonstrate clearly that whatever may be case with other issues, Social Security isn't an issue that Dems from conservative or rural districts need to run away from. In fact, I think quite the opposite.]

In any case, Pomeroy seems like the guy for the job. Not the only one, mind you. There's plenty of work to go around. And -- God forbid -- I'm not saying anyone should leapfrog the seniority queue. But he should be front and center on the Dems' Social Security team and conspicuous on the shows. Not doing so might be a really big mistake.

This is interesting. The Democratic Party of San Fernando Valley, a coalition of 24 Democratic clubs located in or partly in the Valley [i.e., the suburbs on the northwest side of LA], just passed a resolution against President Bush's Social Security phase-out plan. And as part of their resolution they resolve "not [to] endorse or support financially any Democratic candidate who expresses support, advocates for, or votes for such a plan."

Sounds like they're pretty clear on where they stand.

From a reader ...

Question: who else has been on the payroll?

They sank a quarter of a million into one not so prominent commentator to push a single issue -- not even one where they really needed help -- and they never greased anyone else? Not so credible.

Anyway, just asking . . .


Sounds about right.

Itsy witsy bitsy privatization<$NoAd$>?

Wolf Blitzer questioning Treasury Secretary John Snow on the president's phase-out plan, which recent reports say will divert as much as 30% of revenues into private accounts (emphasis added) ...

In terms of legislative strategy, do you envisage the Social Security reform that the president is proposing, the little partial privatization of Social Security, for that legislative battle to precede the tax simplification battle, if in fact, there is a battle? Or to be simultaneous? These two issues coming before the Congress around same time.

Perhaps there'll be an Olympic competition for egregious mimickry of the White House party-line. Of course, Armstrong Williams couldn't compete, since he's already gone pro ...

[ed.note: Special thanks to TPM reader LS.]

A new statement from Sen. Feinstein of California on private accounts: "I strongly oppose private accounts, which could cost $1 trillion or more and still fail to improve the financial condition of Social Security. Unless I see a proposal that protects the fiscal health of Social Security and does not dramatically increase the national debt, I will continue my opposition."

Here would be some time very well spent.

We've noted before that the "on hold" recording that now plays when you call the Social Security Administration includes thinly-veiled Bush administration propaganda about Social Security's insolvency and the need for "long range changes" in the program, and the sooner the better. Similar verbiage is now contained in the mailings that the SSA sends out to all Americans who pay into the system, describing their lifetime earnings and projected benefits.

And I'm told that this soft pro-privatization propaganda has been getting more pointed over the last three years, even as the actuaries at SSA have been reporting that the predicted Social Security funding shortfalls are receding further and further into the future.

So here's the idea -- one that takes on even more timeliness with the revelations today about the administration and Armstrong Williams: why not prepare a well-crafted FOIA request to the SSA requesting any and all documents relating to the preparation and authorship of the increasingly pro-privatization boilerplate that appears and plays on the SSA's various mailings and phone recordings?

Go back to 2001 and bring it up until today.

Who will do it?

Courtesy of Atrios, this from USA Today ...

Seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.

The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required commentator Armstrong Williams "to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts," and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004.

Williams said Thursday he understands that critics could find the arrangement unethical, but "I wanted to do it because it's something I believe in."

I can't say I'm too exercised <$Ad$> one way or another about Armstrong Williams' professional ethics, or lack thereof. But taxpayer money for this? This sounds like it's clearly political work. Perhaps that fat Bush-Cheney campaign fund should reimburse the taxpayers. If the White House wants to fully fund Armstrong Williams instead of the NCLB bill, let them do it on their own dime.

PS. This also gets us back to the issue of OpEd payola, which we discussed back in March 2002 and at other times. This was a topic I was collecting information on for years, but so far at least never got around to writing. As I said in that earlier post, many more OpEds than you'd imagine are bought and paid for. At a few of the premium dailies it's hard to pull off. But beyond those it's pretty common, though often without the editors even being aware of it. There are even a few prominent papers known by those in the business to be an easy (and willing) mark.

A new member of the Senate's Fainthearted Faction: Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

Notwithstanding Sen. Arlen Specter's declared opposition to a private-accounts-based Social Security phase-out, Sen. Lindsey Graham is putting together a working group of six senators (seven, including Graham) "seek[ing] agreement on a bipartisan blueprint for shoring up Social Security, preferably before President Bush outlines his plan and partisan lines harden in Congress."

So reports Thursday's Wall Street Journal.

The six include 2 Republicans and 4 Democrats. And Graham is holding the meetings with the "encouragement" of the White House.

The Senators are Republicans Charles Grassley of Iowa and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. The Democrats are Max Baucus of Montana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

In March 2002, Sen. Lieberman called "privatization" a "dangerous mistake."

"Social Security privatization," he said, "would take away the safety from the safety net, and turn the idea of a rainy day fund into a sink or swim proposition."

"We understand Social Security's economic value and appreciate its moral value," he wisely observed, "and that we won't let it be diluted, dismantled or dissolved."

I couldn't agree more. And yet the president has made clear that any plan must include privatization, a private-accounts-based partial phase-out of Social Security.

So what is there to talk about exactly?

On October 21st 1998, when first running for senate, Sen. Lincoln called privatization "dangerous" and made opposition to it a key plank in her campaign.

So, again, what is there to talk about?

Why are we picking on Faction newcomer Sen. Lincoln and not Sen. Baucus, you ask?

Because Baucus seems to have bailed out. Notwithstanding his participation in the meetings, the Times reports Baucus "said on Thursday that he would oppose the president's Social Security plan this year."

In an interview with the Times, Baucus, who provided the president key support on the 2001 tax cut bill and the Medicare bill, said, ""I seriously doubt I'm going to be the linchpin this time ... [private accounts will] exacerbate the problem, not solve it."

Meanwhile, according to the Washington Post, a telling division is emerging between Senate and House Republicans.

While Senators like Chuck Grassley, Lindsey Graham and others believe the "White House should leave it to Congress to work quietly on a bipartisan Social Security package that is not explicitly the president's," House leaders are sending a very different message. According to the Post, they're insisting that "the president has to issue a detailed plan to restructure Social Security and add personal investment accounts, then sell it himself before he could possibly hope to get broad Republican support."

And what's the big difference between the Senate and the House? Right. The folks in the House all have to face the voters next year. Most in the senate don't have to for three or five years. And the president never.

And as long as we're on the subject, which party seems more divided over this issue?

Alberto Gonzales believes that the president can immunize individuals for committing acts of torture and that he has the power to authorize violations of criminal law. That's how Chris Suellentrop interprets what Gonzales said today on the Hill in Slate. And he makes a very persuasive case.

And this is the man who will soon be the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the land.

It defies comment.

Here's an overnight Associated Press piece entitled "Bush Pledges to Lead on Social Security." It has most of what you'd expect and then <$NoAd$> this ...

Though Republicans have increased their majority in both houses, changes would require clearing a hurdle of 60 votes in the Senate.

Underscoring that difficulty, Sen. Arlen Specter, a prominent Republican moderate, has expressed his opposition to cuts in promised Social Security benefits for future retirees

"I strongly oppose this approach," Specter says in a letter on his official Web site. The Pennsylvania Republican did not state a position on investment accounts.

No position on private accounts? Try digging a little deeper. As we reported earlier today, Sen. Specter has taken a very definitive position on privatization and private accounts: He's against them.

In the penultimate graf of the letter his office is currently sending out in response to queries from constituents, Specter writes ...

On the issue of privatization, I had some time ago considered an idea to place a relatively small portion of benefits in an investment account, providing that the “security” aspect of Social Security was retained and the investment was under professional management. However, with the severe fluctuations of the stock market, I have since rejected that idea.

And this is as you'd expect since this is the position he clearly enunciated during the campaign this year when he was running against Rep. Joe Hoeffel. As he said at the WTAE-TV debate in Pittsburgh on October 2nd, according to the AP ...

"At one time I had considered a small portion of Social Security in private accounts," Specter said during the hourlong debate at the WTAE-TV studio in Pittsburgh. But after a closer examination, "I think it is unwise," he said. "I believe the seniors ought to be reassured that their Social Security benefits are solid."

So notwithstanding the report in tonight's AP piece, I think Sen. Specter is being quite clear on his opposition to private accounts. He stated his opposition during the heat of the campaign. And he's making the point now even more clearly in the letter he's sending constituents, now that he doesn't have to face voters against for another six years, if then even. As Specter himself says, he has "rejected" the idea of private accounts.