Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

There are two important and telling articles on the Social Security debate in tomorrow's papers, one in the Times and another in the Post, both looking at two sides of the same coin: the collapse of the president's initial effort to phase out Social Security.

The Times piece, by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Robin Toner, confirms what you could glean if you've been reading the papers closely for the last week: the Republicans' townhall meetings on Social Security have ranged from so-so to terrible, with a few cases that were little short of riots. And they're coming back to DC with an even worse case of the phase-out-willies than they left with.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa tells the Times, in so many words, that unless the president can pull off a major turnaround in public opinion on this issue, it's over. He goes on to say: "I think 90 percent of the lifting is with the president. That process is starting, but it's starting very slow because too many Republicans and Democrats - how would you say it? - don't have the confidence that this issue is ever going to come up."

There you go right there. And Grassley has also inadvertantly touched on one of the reasons being score-keeper for the Conscience Caucus has become more difficult in recent days. Folks just don't want to say anything because they're not at all sure this thing's ever even going to come to a vote. And the last place you want to be if you're running next year is to have put your phase-out cards on the table -- to get all Loud & Proud about it, shall we say -- for no reason at all.

Which brings us to Sen. Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania, who's probably gotten knocked around this week about as bad as any middle-aged prizefighter in one too many fights for that final payday. Nothing's for sure, certainly. But a year and a half or so from now we may look back and say, this was the week this guy's goose got cooked. Because he has wrapped himself tight in the phase-out flag and I think it's going to turn out -- judged by the most objective measure: whether the thing goes down in flames -- that he's on the wrong side of the American people on this one, not to mention Pennsylvanians.

Now, from the Times move over to the piece in the Post which focuses on Republicans who are desperate for a deal to cut to get out of this mess and, well ... and the Democrats who love them. The dealmakers they talk about are Rep. Clay Shaw (R) of Florida and the Private Accounts Book Club man, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina. The writers of the Post piece -- John Harris and Jim VandeHei -- then go on to plumb the debate about how similar the present situation is to the health care debate from 1994.

The real bottom line in this article, however, is the crew of Dems eager to toss a life-line to the president just as the American people are turning hard against phase-out. Take Rep. Shaw's possible compromise deal, as described in the Post: Republicans give Dems some of their add-on accounts and in return the president agrees to phase-out less of Social Security than he initially wanted -- 2 percent of payroll rather than 4 percent.

Such a deal! Republicans at their town halls are getting treated like off-pitch singers on the Gong Show and the Democrats should cut a phase-out deal that gives the president what until a couple months ago was supposed to be all that he wanted (i.e., 2 percent of payroll)?

Whoever these Fainthearted Dems might be, please pass a law barring them from negotiating the price of their next automobile, right? I mean, maybe they think Enron stock is undervalued too and primed for a comeback.

As the Post describes the terms of a potential deal: "[M]ost of these compromises would involve Bush significantly scaling back his proposals for restructuring the popular retirement program. In exchange, he could still claim an incremental victory on what he has described as his core principles."

Of course, the real deal maker -- from what I can discern -- remains Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connectictu, the new Dean of the Senate's Fainthearted Faction. Sen. Carper comes in a close second. But I think Lieberman is the one who wants it most.

Along these lines, at the end of the week I heard from a number of TPM Readers who contacted Sen. Lieberman and were told in no uncertain terms that he does not support private accounts carved out of Social Security. All I can tell you is, listen carefully to the precise language his folks use because faint hearts make for meticulous wordsmiths. Or perhaps better, ask them this: Will Sen. Lieberman rule out a deal in which the payroll tax cap is raised and private accounts are funded only with that new payroll tax money? I doubt you'll get such a definitive answer.

Rep. Capito (R) of West Virginia feels the heat in the district on Social Security, says she'll urge fellow Republicans to "be really cautious about what we do."

Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia -- he of the dry powder -- apparently got an earful at his townhall meeting in Fairfax today.

We've also been reviewing Davis's statements over the past few months to see whether or not he fits the current criteria for membership in the Conscience Caucus. A couple months ago someone who was going to such lengths to keep his distance from the president's phase-out plan would have gotten membership in a heartbeat. But for the moment we're still reviewing the record.

There is a short piece in the Times tomorrow noting that GOP astroturfer Charlie Jarvis plans to keep up his goonish campaign of disinformation against AARP and any and all who try to stand in the way of the president's Social Security phase-out plan. But let me take the opportunity to follow up on the O'Neill Marketing Company (OMC), the direct mail services provider that used to work out of the same offices as USANext and was at one point partly owned by them.

We've been able to find out a bit more about their relationship with Jarvis's operation. And though they apparently leased space from USANext until as recently as late last year, the financial ties between the OMC and USANext ended in 2002. In fact, from what I understand, it was Jarvis's arrival at USANext, and the new direction in which he took the organization, that prompted the folks at OMC to sever those ties.

Now, the ins-and-outs of the business history of this direct-mail company in Northern Virginia certainly aren't at the top of most people's concerns. But Charlie Jarvis is out there playing some pretty nasty hardball against anyone opposing phase-out. And plenty of folks on the other side are happy to oblige him by giving him the same in return. But, from the best I can tell, these folks at O'Neill are pretty much just caught in the crossfire.

Whatever slime Jarvis is peddling -- and he's peddling plenty -- isn't coming from them.

Jon Sawyer of the Post-Dispatch has a nice run-down of how the Social Security debate is shaping up in Missouri. The basic story, like most everywhere else, Democrats love talking about it, Republicans want to talk about anything but.

In a speech before a local Chamber of Commerce, Rep. Kenny Hulshoff (R) (better known to TPMers as one of the congressmen purged from the Ethics Committee in the Night of the Long Gavels) didn't even mention private accounts.

(ed.note: Note of thanks to TPM Reader DK for keeping us up to speed on the latest happenings across the country.)

George W. Bush, 1978: "[Social Security] will be bust in 10 years unless there are some changes ... The ideal solution would be for Social Security to be made sound and people given the chance to invest the money the way they feel."

The Newark Star-Ledger says that Rep. Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey, recently-defenestrated Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, "said recently he does not support the creation of private Social Security accounts."

For the moment, we're entering Smith in the Conscience Caucus, on the basis of Star-Ledger reporter Robert Cohen's report. But we're curious to hear from anyone who knows how and when Smith stated his opposition.

The article also states that Rep. Michael Ferguson (R) of New Jersey, a Social Security bamboozler of the Heather Wilson variety, has announced that Pres. Bush will visit Westfield next Friday as part of the Bamboozlepalooza tour.

Finally, the Mobile Register reports that of the seven Republicans in the state's congressional delegation, six held no Social Security events during the congressional recess. The seventh, Rep. Terry Everett, had apparently gone so far to ground that he wouldn't even answer the paper's queries.

In a townhall meeting on Social Security in Beverly Shores this week, Rep. Chris Chocola (R) of Indiana got a question many members have been getting this week. A constituent asked why we can't raise or eliminate the payroll tax cap as a way to strengthen the Social Security system and ensure its long-term solvency. Chocola responded, according to the local paper, that "that would buy about seven years but he is looking for long-term solutions."

Well, that's just not true. Or, if you want to say it's true because it's vague, it is nonetheless highly misleading.

Let me explain.

Earlier today we noted a new actuarial memo put out by the Social Security administration. The memo looks at 18 potential 'fixes' and examines how long each would extend the solvency of the program. For our purposes, we'll focus on #14, which looks at how the outlook would change if the payroll tax cap were eliminated (ed.note: The table in question can be found on page 18 of the linked pdf document.)

What does it say?

It says that whereas the Trust Fund is scheduled to be exhausted in 2042 under current law, this change would keep the system solvent through 2079 (ed.note: under SSA scoring procedures they don't go past 75 years, thus the date 2079).

In 2079, the Trust Fund would be shrinking. But measured as a percentage of the annual budget of Social Security it would be slightly larger than it is now. Now, I don't know about you but that sounds like it extends solvency considerably past 37 years, not 7 years.

Another way of putting this is to say that simply making this one change, getting rid of the cap, would extend the solvency of Social Security well beyond the lifetimes of almost anyone living today.

So what the hell is Chocola talking about?

Chocola is talking about the year that you have to start drawing money out of the Trust Fund, i.e., the 2018 date folks are always talking about.

Now, you might figure that the two numbers should be about the same -- put off dipping into the Trust Fund for seven years and you put off when it runs out of money by about seven years. But the Social Security actuaries' estimates show clearly that that is not true.

Now, two points. First, there are a lot of complexities and ins-and-outs behind those magic dates of 2018 and 2042. But as long as those are our benchmarks, removing the cap makes a very big deal. And Chocola isn't levelling with his constituents. Second, it's not just Chocola -- he's got his own unique portfolio of shenanigans we'll be discussing later. But this 'seven years' line is being used by virtually every Republican holding townhalls this week. And they are seldom being called on it. In fact, I bet will hear it several times on the Sunday shows. And I wonder if anyone will contradict it.

Late Update: I now see that Duncan Black (aka Atrios) has already been addressing this point -- particularly reporters' failure to call people on it -- in two excellent pieces (one and two) at Media Matters.

Now Rep. McCrery (R) of Louisiana needs a helping hand?

Seems like just a few weeks ago McCrery was saying: "The AARP and the Democrats think if you divert some money from the trust fund [the existing program will be undermined] That is true on its face. It does decrease the level of the trust fund. Politically, that's going to be a very strong tool that (opponents) can use to defeat a plan."

Now he says he's eager to get to work doing just that.

And now President Bush says he's going to come to McCrery's district to spread the good news about private accounts.

But is McCrery happy to see him?

The announcement triggered this response from McCrery, who seems to have some odd rhetorical ambivalence wedged down deep in his soul: "This trip to Shreveport should be seen not having anything to do with my role in the process. It should be seen as another stop in the president's journey that there's a need for change in the Social Security system."

Just another stop on the president's journey to private accounts nirvana.