Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

In generalities, the point is widely understood. But in this article by Sidney Blumenthal from yesterday, the specifics are assembled together. The point being that nothing President Bush is saying now about Social Security is new. In fact, almost word for word his statements are close to identical to Republican attacks on Social Security from as far back as 1936.

A few examples.

The 1936 Republican platform: "Society has an obligation to promote the security of the people, by affording some measure of protection against involuntary unemployment and dependency in old age. The New Deal policies, while purporting to provide social security, have, in fact, endangered it ...the [trust] fund will contain nothing but the government's promise to pay ... [and is] unworkable."

Goldwater on Social Security from '64: "It promises more benefits to more people than the incomes collected will provide."

It's always been the same. The Trust Fund doesn't exist. The system is on the verge of bankruptcy. It can't deliver what it promises. The program should be voluntary.

All that is different now is that a sitting president has chosen to make a showdown over the issue.

I've said probably too many times over the last couple days that however they choose to dress it up and whatever sort of compromise they want to present it as, the president's goal is still phase-out. That's why he's invested so much in this politically. And if you want to grasp the stakes of all this -- both politically and in terms of policy -- just look at the fact that the White House is now redoubling its efforts to push privatization in the face of public opinion which appears to be congealing against them. They understand the consequences of defeat.

Now, you'll hear from me and others over the coming weeks and months all sorts of different jargon and policy particulars about caps and private accounts and add-on accounts and Trust Funds and rates of return and all the rest of it.

But the terms of this debate are actually pretty straightforward. The president and his supporters want to get the government out of the Social Security business by ending guaranteed benefits. It's really as simple as that. Not complicated. They'll put in its place some system of private accounts where you can save money on your own. And if it works out, great. If it doesn't, it's your problem.

Social Security is about spreading out the risk and the security by having near-universal participation in one program. That's what it is. You pay in through the course of your working years and after you retire you receive your guaranteed benefit every month for the rest of your life. It is that issue of guarantee -- which, in its nature, only a program like Social Security can provide -- which the president and his supporters are trying to do away with, either all at once or in stages.

So take away all of your policy particulars and computations and flow-charts and analyses. And set them to one side. That is the issue at the core of all of this debate. It defines what kind of society we live in. Its future rests in the hands of Senate Democrats. And all manner of honor or infamy is in store for the ones who make the difference.

Several times recently we've mentioned Jason Furman, former Director of Economic Policy for the Kerry-Edwards Campaign and one of the Democrats' experts on Social Security policy. The Filibuster, the official blog of the Columbia Political Review, recently published an interview with Furman in which he discusses many of the key questions about Social Security and the unfolding debate over whether or not it should be phased-out.

Not just Frist.

You have to read down to the bottom of the article in tomorrow's Times. But it seems that the White House was also able to force a recantation from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) Iowa, who yesterday suggested that the Congress should shift its focus from private accounts to solvency. Today Grassley released a statement saying: "Personal accounts are still on the table along with all the other ideas to strengthen Social Security."

That, of course, brings the number of White House-squeezed recanters to three: McCrery, Frist and Grassley, though today's reports left it unclear whether Frist and Grassley were taken to the Chamber like McCrery.

The Post tomorrow says this about the president's warning to Democrats ...

Meanwhile yesterday, Bush warned that Democratic lawmakers may suffer politically if they continue to oppose his plan without offering alternatives. Americans are beginning to agree that Social Security needs revisions to safeguard its long-term stability, he said, adding: "In my judgment, ultimately, I think politicians need to be worried about not being a part of the solution."

At the risk of stating the obvious, there is one thing you can say for this president, as indeed you can for most presidents, though not to the same degree: With every major <$Ad$>policy he has pushed, whatever his level of belief in the substance of the legislation, he has done so with an eye to maximizing the political return at the next election.

Every single time: tax cuts, Iraq, Homeland Security, etc. Every single time.

So clearly if the president really believed that Democrats would be hurt politically if they got left off the phase-out bandwagon, he'd be pushing for a vote now, thus trying to put the Democrats at a maximum disadvantage in 18 months. But he isn't, or rather can't, because his Republicans are terrified of moving without the Democrats.

So on its face, what the president is saying is a crock.

But let's look at the assumption, or rather the spin, underlying it.

Increasingly, in recent days, the president and his surrogates have been arguing that while broad-based support for private accounts has yet to materialize, there is a growing public belief in the need for rapid and fundamental reform. And that, they reason, puts them in a position to win the debate because if the public believes major changes are necessary, and soon, they're the ones with the major reform on the table.

In essence, the president is arguing that while he has yet to win the argument, he and the White House are winning the predicate to the argument.

Only, all the polls say it's just the opposite.

Consider a few examples.

The recent CNN/USAToday poll found that the percentage of Americans who believe that major changes are needed "in the next year or two" was 38%. A month earlier that number was 49%.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released a couple weeks ago showed that over the previous two months number of Americans who believe in "making some adjustments [to Social Security] but leaving the Social Security system basically as is" went from 39% in December, to 44% in January, to 50% in mid-February.

It's not always easy in the various polls to locate questions that go specifically to this issue. And it is further complicated by the fact that in the Times poll, for instance, as well as in some of the others, many of the questions are asked for the first time or for the first time in many years. So you can't get a sense of change over time.

What the polls do show is a rapidly increasingly awareness of the debate itself, which makes sense given the amount of news coverage. But as the recent Pew poll shows awareness of the debate correlates strongly with opposition.

In other words, the more folks know about the president's plan, the less they like it.

The simple truth is that the president isn't just losing the debate on private accounts and phase-out. He's also losing it on the underlying question of whether or not fundemental changes are necessary and whether the need for change is urgent.

A few thoughts on where we are right now on the phase-out debate.

The president has hit a brick wall on his first attempt at beginning the phase out of Social Security. If you look at how the debate has evolved over the last six weeks and why the public is turning against the president's plan, you see that it has become increasingly clear to the public that private accounts damage Social Security.

Simple as that.

It takes money out of Social Security -- an extremely popular program -- and puts it toward creating the president's private accounts. You can't be for protecting or strengthening Social Security and also be for private accounts since the two goals are diametrically opposed, inimical to each other.

So it makes sense to call it what it is, a raid on Social Security. Not a raid on the Trust Fund as folks used to bandy about in the last decade. But snaking money out of Social Security itself.

That is still the president's preferred policy. And the public is turning against it.

So what is there to talk about as long as that is the case? The Democrats are for preserving Social Security; the president is for partially (or eventually totally) phasing it out and replacing it with private investment accounts and reduced guaranteed benefits.

The two objectives don't admit of compromise. The solution is to have a full public debate, see who the public supports, and then vote.

The president has the executive branch and both houses of Congress. He can pass what he wants if he can control his Republicans and scrape together a handful of Democrats in the senate.

But what basis could Democrats find on which to compromise as long as the president won't commit to maintaining and strengthening Social Security in its current form rather than partially phasing it out?

Going to the Bamboozlepalooza event tomorrow in either Indiana or New Jersey? We want to hear about it. Admittedly, if you're a TPM Reader going to an event probably means standing outside and protesting like most regular Americans who aren't among the phase-out elect. But let us know what you see. And if you take pictures, send us those too.

Noam Scheiber is dead right about the White House's new roundabout plans to phase out Social Security.

Read what he has to say.

There are many issues to discuss now that we've entered into a main phase of the Social Security battle -- one in particular will be to keep a close eye on Cato, Club for Growth and the rest of the money lobby to see how well they warm to the idea of the tax increases the president is now floating as a way to pay for his plan. But the first thing to do is to focus and understand where the Democrats are in this debate and what they are after, and for all of them to resolve that it really doesn't matter whether President Bush tries the front door to phase-out or the back door or whether he tries to break through the window or even just burn down the whole house. The goal is what counts. And the question is just what it is that people don't like about Social Security in its current form.

President Bush kicked off this struggle by trying to raid Social Security (not the Trust Fund, but the program itself) of a third of its funding to set up his private accounts. Having hit a brick wall with the Democrats and numerous defections from Republicans, he's now looking for a second roll of the dice. He'll now try to bargain with more options on the table, perhaps offering to phase out less of Social Security or -- and this is more likely -- extend the time over which the program is phased out.

But the goal is the same: phase-out. In that sense nothing has changed.