Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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From Sen. Boxer's (D) speech <$NoAd$> yesterday on Social Security ...

So clearly, Social Security is not in crisis, is not bankrupt, and is not collapsing.

Yes, there is a challenge we should address.

Have we ever faced a similar Social Security challenge before? Yes. During the Reagan presidency in 1983. Working together, Democrats and Republicans, we resolved the challenge then just as we can do now. So why would an otherwise optimistic George Bush turn into a prophet of pessimism on Social Security?

Because, his initiative is not about meeting the challenges of Social Security to keep it sound; it is not about bringing together Democrats and Republicans as Ronald Reagan did to ensure that full benefits will be there for all Americans. It is about one thing and one thing only: destroying Social Security.

How do I know that? Am I being partisan? Am I being unfair by stating in a very clear way that I believe the true goal here is to destroy Social Security? Not at all. I am simply telling the truth as told by this very White House.

On January 6, 2005, the White House wrote a Social Security memo. Although marked “not for attribution,” fortunately, we have it.

The most telling sentence in the entire memo is this: “For the first time in six decades the Social Security battle is one we can win – and in doing so, we can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of the country.”

Here's the rest. It was delivered at the San Francisco Senior Center.

Both the Times and the Post on Saturday run follow-up pieces on Speaker Denny Hastert's (R) interview in yesterday's Chicago Tribune. The Times piece, by Robin Toner, focuses more on the public disagreement between the Speaker's office and Ken Mehlman at the RNC over how ready the public is for privatization and thus, by implication, how good a job the president has done at selling it.

The Post piece, by Mike Allen, probes what I think is the more telling development.

You'll remember, only a few weeks ago, the House Republicans were telling the president that they wanted him to put forward a specific proposal and then go out and sell it to the public. Only then would they be willing to put their necks on the line to support it. The Senate GOP, or at least key Republican senators, thought differently. They wanted the president to draw back and let them take the lead rather than polarizing the debate by campaigning for it aggressively himself.

Now, as Allen explains, the House GOP has shifted over to the Senate position.

Here is one of the key passages ...

White House and congressional GOP tacticians said yesterday that they now see little chance that Bush will issue a detailed plan for partially privatizing Social Security the way he released specific proposals for tax cuts and other major initiatives.

Key leaders including House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) have urged Bush to speak in general terms about altering Social Security and to leave it to Congress to develop specific proposals.

This contrasts with an earlier Capitol Hill strategy of letting the president take the lead -- and take most of the political heat -- in pushing for changes in the politically sensitive Social Security program.

What this means is pretty clear. The House Republicans have seen the Bamboozlepalooza Tour and they don't think it's working. They have to run next year; the president doesn't. And as long as their fate is tied to the Social Security phase-out freight train, they want their hands on the brakes. That gives them control over the tempo and content of the legislative process and the freedom, if and when they want, to simply let the whole thing die.

This development raises a point, which has been lurking in the background through this debate, but has received too little attention. As usual for the president, this battle over Social Security was a war of choice. No one in Congress chose it; he chose it. But once the issue was joined, the White House and the Democrats had a paradoxical commonality of interest in how it would play out.

Let me explain what I mean.

The Democrats didn't choose this fight. It was thrust on them. Because of their core values as a party, the stakes were extraordinarily high. Lose Social Security and the loss is staggering, almost total, given the role it plays in American society. Columnists talk about Roosevelt and legacies and the like. And there's some of that, to be sure, particularly on a sentimental level. But the crux of the matter isn't who created Social Security. It's what the program is and what the Democrats' values are, even if sometimes they need reminding. It's that important.

At the same time, if they could turn back the president's phase-out crusade, the upside would be almost as promising as the downside would be bleak. As it did with health care, a major defeat for a president on privatization could put the policy on ice for years, possibly for the rest of our lifetimes. And the political benefits of defeating the president are too obvious to require explanation.

The White House is in a similar position. If the president could privatize Social Security he would become a truly transformative president, for good or ill. Few presidents get to work on the very architecture of society and state. It's a legacy on steroids.

On the other hand, if the president failed he would have started his second term with his first major political defeat as president and one that came after winning reelection and expanding his majorities in both chambers of congress. It would likely shape the rest of his presidency.

For the White House and the Democrats it's really close to all or nothing, all the chips on the table, with very big upsides and very big downsides.

The odd man out here is the congressional GOP. For them, the calculus is entirely different, particularly in the House.

They've got a good thing going -- seemingly durable majorities, K Street disciplined and incorporated into the DeLay Machine. Sure, many Republicans, all things being equal, believe in privatization. But if it happens it'll be the president's victory, not theirs. It won't expand their majorities or bring them campaign cash they don't already get. A win on this issue, in the most hardboiled terms, is really pretty much a wash. There's just not much in it for them.

Losing, on the other hand, all comes out of their hide. Though a defeated president might be weakened, he'd still be president. Some of them would be out of a job. Their very majorities could be in danger.

A few years ago the congressional Republicans may have had enough ideological fire to yearn for this fight and run the risk. But no more.

These dynamics, I think, shape the structure of the whole debate, the whole contest. And if the Democrats can play it correctly, it's the president's achilles heel.

As we've noted a number of times, the power of an engaged and disciplined presidency, with congressional majorities at hand, is awesome. So this is still far, far from over. But if Allen is right about this change in thinking with the House Republicans, we may have just seen one of the first key shoes drop.

Social Security joke of the evening.

In parliamentary-speak, a 'whip' is a member of the leadership charged with 'whipping' straying members of the party back into line on major votes. The Senate Dems, for instance, have four deputy whips whose job it is to get strayers into line on pivotal issues like, say, Social Security.

Only, in this case, one of the four deputy whips is none other than Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, Dean of the senate's Fainthearted Faction.

So in addition to getting whipped by Sens. Boxer, Feingold and Nelson of Florida, he now also needs to whip himself.

Sen. Tom Carper (D) of Delaware: "I don't believe that we should rule out the accounts. We have a very low savings rate in this country and clearly need to find ways to stimulate savings, and I think we should be open to a wide range of ideas and not dismiss them out of hand."

Carper is the new Dean of the Senate Fainthearted Faction.

(ed.note: The Senate Deanship was temporarily vacant and held on a contingent basis by Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida, who is fainthearted enough for both chambers. However, Carper has now sufficiently distinguished himself to resume the post.)

Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota is going to be on the Stephanopoulos show this weekend. Maybe he can clear up some of those Faintheartedness questions from last month.

Did Rep. Allen Boyd, the Panhandle Poltroon, get the memo?

The Dean of the Fainthearted Faction (Actually through a special motion, Boyd is now Dean of both the House and Senate Factions, because of his profound Faintheartedness) has been telling his constituents that he's for private accounts because it's the only responsible thing to do to make sure Social Security remains solvent for future generations.

"Keeping this vital program intact," he said last week, "for those who depend on it today and in the future, is a commitment I will not ignore."

But yesterday, the cosponsor of his own bill, Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) told the Arizona Republic that "Personal accounts don't solve the problem. I've never argued they solve the problem."

Kolbe went on to tell them that private accounts are essentially a sweetener to get younger workers to go along with big benefit cuts. As Kolbe put it to a hypothetical young worker: "Look, sorry your benefits are going to be cut in the future and you're going to be paying more taxes to support this system, but there is something in it for you."

We were also interested to see that Boyd apparently told the Wall Street Journal that he "opposes big borrowing" to make things right with Social Security. But even Kolbe says their plan costs $600 billion. Actually, $1.1 trillion, but they say they get $500 billion back.

Our man Boyd, always the last to know.

By the way, any progress on getting someone to run against this guy?

Another entry for the Wisdom of Katherine Harris anthology.

This from the AP, Harris talking about President Bush at the Bamboozlepalooza event in Tampa ...

One of those in attendance, Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Fla., quoted the president as saying he recognized the political difficulty involved in tackling such legislation. "He said this is hard.... But he said it's not as hard as sending young men and women off to war," she said.

We've slotted Harris down as FIW in the Conscience Caucus, as if there were ever any question.

Blessed are we that TPM has readers like TPM Reader DP who calls our attention to this hilarious passage in the Hastert interview in the Tribune ...

"You're going to have less money coming in than goes out and indeed, that's a crisis point, that's a problem we have to address," [Hastert] said, calling the program "a Ponzi scheme," but quickly adding that he did not mean it in derogatory way.

Must be hard to have to switch back and forth between Cato-speak and District-speak when it comes to Social Security ...

Rep. Chris Shays (R) of Connecticut is very much in the president's handful on phasing out Social Security. Here's a Charlie Cook article that discusses Diane Farrell and whether she'll decide to challenge Shays again in 2006.

Farrell held Shays to 52% of the vote last November. And as Cook rightly notes, "despite her 2004 loss, Farrell is one of the strongest challengers her party could field in 2006."

Here's Farrell's campaign website from last cycle. And here's her bio.

Financial services industry types notwithstanding, how popular is phase-out in Connecticut? How about in Bridgeport? And in any case, most people who really understand and respect financial markets realize this is a lousy idea anyway. After all, Bob Rubin and John Corzine are both on the right side. And I hear Goldman does some financial services work.