Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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Thursday is the day that President Bush is scheduled to head out to Montana to hold a few town meetings on phasing out Social Security. Expect the benighted bigs to focus on whether Bush can put the screws to Sen. Max Baucus (D). But you, who are among the TPM illuminati, know that the real issue is whether President Bush, coming right off his State of the Union address, can pry an endorsement loose from the state's sole congressman, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R).

Back on November 17th, Rep. Rehberg told the Great Falls Tribune that he was still pretty leery about President Bush's plan to phase out Social Security.

As reporter Mike Dennison put it ...

U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, Montana's sole House member and a Republican, says he's a long way from feeling comfortable about "privatizing" or allowing "personal accounts" with Social Security funds, as suggested by the president.

"I haven't seen anything I can support yet," he says.

But Rep. Rehberg's views on private accounts are fluid or perhaps best described as evolving, if not always in the same direction.

In a campaign trail debate in June 2000, for instance, he endorsed private accounts, telling the debate moderator, "We shouldn't be propping up a failed system."

In an earlier debate he asked rhetorically, "Why shouldn't we believe that somebody else could manage that money better than somebody in Washington, D.C.?"

Indeed, as we dug into this story we discovered that Rehberg was actually something of an early innovator in the Social Security speech code wars. Back in 2000 he repeatedly endorsed setting up private accounts within Social Security. But when opponent Nancy Keenan had the temerity to call this 'privatization,' Rehberg wouldn't stand for it.

Campaign manager Alan Mikkelsen said Rehberg simply wanted to allow workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in private investment accounts. "That's a far cry from privatization," Mikkelsen harrumphed to AP reporter Bob Anez.

In another press comment, Mikkelsen said Rehberg "doesn't want to privatize Social Security, but rather wants to explore the option of allowing future recipients to voluntarily invest a portion of their payroll taxes in individual savings accounts."

In any case, with all the sand kicked in the air, I wanted to see if there'd been any movement in the congressman's position over the last two months. When I rung him up this afternoon Rehberg spokesman Brad Keena told TPM that the congressman "does believe in a plan that will fix and reform" Social Security. He's just not ready to endorse the president's plan.

With regard to all the options on the table, Rehberg is "very open-minded," Keena repeated several times.

"Really, we haven't gotten this national debate into swing yet. We just got the information on [the president's Social Security plan] and he's begining to study it."

Presumably, by Thursday he'll have had a chance to study it more closely. And according to Sunday's piece in the Great Falls Tribune, Rehberg will be travelling with the president when he comes to the state.

So a pretty straightforward question for the media folk travelling with the president. Will Rehberg endorse, or no?

It's a mixed day for Mainers on the Social Security front.

On the basis of two articles in the Washington Post last week, we've elevated Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) into "Loud and Proud" status within the Conscience Caucus.

Here Snowe tells reporters she will oppose diversion of payroll tax revenue into private accounts. And earlier in the week the Post quoted her saying that she is "certainly not going to support diverting $2 trillion from Social Security into creating personal savings accounts."

On the other hand, Snowe's colleague, Sen. Susan Collins (R) doesn't seem to want to tell her constituents anything about her position on phasing out Social Security. In this letter to a TPM reader constituent, all we could divine from Collins' opaque doubletalk was that she's started using the last buzzword from the GOP Social Security speech code, referring to privatization as "modernization."

Wow. He's sure a downer.

We noted earlier that Rich Thau is the guy who helped the congressional Republicans put together the Social Security playbook they huddled with over the weekend. Here on the Third Millenium website is Thau's promotional video. Right after the screen flashes "the media turn to him for provocative commentary," at timestamp 3:35, Thau hits listeners with this doozy: “If we do nothing between now and the year 2012, we have two drastic options. The government can either cut benefits by about thirty percent or raise payroll taxes by thirty percent. Both are very unpleasant.”

Presumably he was working from the ridiculously pessimistic numbers of a few years ago, not the more up-to-date ridiculously pessimistic numbers. But doesn't the phase-out crowd say that the Social Security gotterdammerung happens in 2042 or 2052?

Hmmm. That's interesting.

Down at the very bottom <$NoAd$> of the GOP Social Security playbook we just posted, there's a sample speech for pitching phase-out to audiences 50 and over. It starts on page 83 of the PDF document. Then if you go down to the end of the speech there's a footer that says ...

This speech was developed by

Presentation Testing, Inc.

For more information about how this speech was developed, please contact Rich Thau at Presentation Testing, Inc. at 212-760-4358.

(Before that sample speech, there's another for young voters which includes the same authorship note.)

Well, TPM reader GD typed Mr. Thau's name into google and found this PDF document in which Thau describes one of the seminars he does. And right there at the top of the document, Thau quotes himself saying: "I've testified on Capitol Hill. I have worked with many members of Congress. They are not committed to passing laws to give your employees retirement security."

This is the guy who's teaching congressional Republicans how to pitch private accounts? The guy who says he knows from experience that members of Congress -- or at least the ones he deals with -- aren't serious about retirement security?

He's quite a character reference ...

Late Update: In this recent article Fred Barnes notes that Thau and Frank Luntz have worked as co-muddlers. The two, it seems, have been comrades-in-arms in the Social Security speech code racket. Thau's company, Presentation Testing, Inc. would appear to be colocated with his Gen-X pro-phase out group Third Millenium. And if you'd care to hear Mr. Thau's views in person, you can hear him on the afternoon panel on day two of the Cato Institute Social Security conference which runs February 8th and 9th.

A few house-keeping <$NoAd$> notes.

We're hoping to be able to ship out the first batch of our uber-cool 'Privatize This' TPM T-Shirts on Wednesday just in time for the kick-off of the president's Social Security bamboozlepalooza tour.

If you've already won a shirt for your fact-finding activities, yours should ship out then or very soon after. As noted earlier, those prefering to operate strictly through the cash nexus will be able to purchase them as well.

The back has the image right there on the side, while the front has the 'Privatize This' banner.

Two other points.

We're going to try to bring you an annotated edition of the Republican strategy memo which we posted earlier today. And today or tomorrow we'll also be posting those 'privatization' flimflam quotes that readers helped us track down.

Rep. Howard Coble (R) of North Carolina sidling up to the Conscience <$NoAd$> Caucus?

From the News & Observer ...

"This is going to be a very tough lift for all of us," said Coble, the longest-serving member of North Carolina's congressional delegation.

Coble has been battling the perception that Republicans would dismantle Social Security since he first ran for Congress 20 years ago.

He cut an ad during that campaign, with his aging parents sitting on a front porch, saying Coble would never hurt Social Security.

"My mama said, 'If he does, I'll take a switch to him,' " Coble said in an interview.

Coble's mother is now 95, and she still would, Coble said.

Coble said he favors fine-tuning rather than overhauling. He finds personal savings accounts "not to be offensive," although he said it's too soon to stake out a position on a plan that has not been presented.

"It's a long way between here and where we tie this ship to the dock," he said.

With such a flood of new members, the Caucus has tightened its eligibility requirements. But Rep. Coble seems like he might want in.

Someone check back with Coble on Friday and see whether Howard's gonna have to take a whoopin' for ole' George W.

Occasionally the import of a tongue-in-cheek post doesn't sink in satisfactorily. So lest there be any confusion, when President Bush hits the road on his pro-phase-out barnstorming tour later this week, defenders of Social Security should make it exceedingly clear that in states like Montana, where the president is allegedly trying to muscle Democrats into supporting his bill, he still hasn't gotten the key Republicans to sign on. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) in Montana is but one example.

In a state like Florida, it is also an opportunity to get all those zipped-lip Republican reps from Florida to tell their constituents whether they support the Bush plan or not.

We were scratching our heads <$Ad$>trying to understand it. Why is President Bush heading out to Montana after his State of the Union address when Sen. Baucus (D) just couldn't make it any clearer that he's not going to vote for a Social Security phase-out bill?

We tossed around a bunch of possible explanations before suddenly the mysterious hidden truth revealed itself: Baucus is just a cover. President Bush is really going to Montana to muscle the state's sole member of the House of Representatives: Rep. Denny Rehberg (R).

Sure, he may have flown under the radar until now. But when asked about the president's phase-out plan back in mid-November, here's what he told the Great Falls Tribune ...

U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, Montana's sole House member and a Republican, says he's a long way from feeling comfortable about "privatizing" or allowing "personal accounts" with Social Security funds, as suggested by the president.

"I haven't seen anything I can support yet," he says.

Not only is Rehberg suggesting he won't vote for phase-out, he's even using the demeaning 'privatizing' buzzword that even most national political reporters aren't allowed to use anymore. That's insubordination this president won't stand.

And along these lines, what about the other states the president is hitting on the campaign trail? I would hate to think that any responsible journalist would cover the president's swing through Florida without finding out whether he's able to get Conscience Caucus members Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R) or Rep. Katherine Harris (R) to sign on.

And what about Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) out in Nebraska? He's been awful silent.

I mean, c'mon. The real question here is whether the president can get members of his own party on board.