Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

New Bamboozlepalooza appearances <$NoAd$> are slated for Alabama, Louisiana and New Jersey.

On that score, we were interested to see that the Montgomery Advertiser puts Sen. Shelby (R) down as a member of the Conscience Caucus. Specifically, they call him one of the state's two Republican "holdouts" on the Bush Social Security plan.

In Westfield, New Jersey, the president's host, Rep. Mike Ferguson (R), says the president "wants to speak to, listen to and talk to residents from around the state."

But the town's lone Democratic town councilman notes that...

If the event is being billed as a town hall meeting for the purpose of eliciting views on one of his policy initiatives, there would be an expectation that people having differing views may be in attendance.

This of course is a reference to the apparent decision to restrict the townhall meeting to avowed supporters of the president.

On the other hand, Rep. Ferguson doesn't think there's a problem...

My sense is the people who would be most interested in being in an event with the president will be ones who are supporters... And I think it's important to hear constructive criticism ... that doesn't include disruptive behavior or obnoxiousness.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R) of Florida is to appear tomorrow on C-SPAN's Washington Journal where she presumably will not be able to have all questions screened in advance.

And we will, of course, have more coming on the Count.

Quite a strong couple days for the phase-out forces, wasn't it?

The Post and the Times tomorrow both have articles that all but call the president's push for private accounts dead. And while I'm not near ready to go that far, it certainly does look like the more people hear, the less they like it.

The most publicized data point in this regard is the recent USAToday/CNN poll which shows, across a series of related questions, that the president has fallen about ten points on Social Security in the last month. It's not quite free-fall, though it's probably enough to induce a bit of a sensation of weightlessness. But this sounding is in line with other recent polls which have pointed to a similar deterioration.

But with all this bad blood, I think I can see the path to a bipartisan compromise, at least between the White House and the Democrats, if not with the congressional GOP. President Bush wants to keep hitting the hustings in Republican-held districts and pressuring wavering GOP representatives to sign on to Social Security phase-out, hoping that persistence will shift the trendline back in favor of private accounts. And at this point I think the Democratic leadership up on the hill probably agrees that this is a very good thing.

Let's all take a deep breath, appreciate the gravity of the moment, and then burst out laughing at the hapless representative from the 4th district of Louisiana, Rep. Jim McCrery (R).

Since it garnered a lot of media attention, you probably saw that the Campaign for America's Future -- one of the lead pro-Social Security advocacy groups -- started running ads in McCrery's district knocking him for being in the pocket of Wall Street interests set to gain from privatization.

It was a tough ad. But in the day of Swift Boats and the gay-loving AARP, it hardly charted any new territory in aggressive political speech. And it had the added benefit of being pretty undeniably factual.

So what does our man McCrery do? He's threatening to bring the courts in to enforce the Social Security speech code and get the ad pulled off the air.

According to an AP story which ran mid-evening on Tuesday, Rep. McCrery had his lawyer write a letter to the stations running the ad claiming that the ad is false and defamatory and threatening that running it "exposes you to possible legal liability."

And what was the defamatory claim, exactly?

The letter says what's defamatory is the ad's claim "U.S. Rep. McCrery wants to privatize Social Security and cut our guaranteed benefits."

This one really shoots McCrery to the top of the list of arch-social security bamboozlers. Republicans don't have to call privatization 'privatization' anymore. And they can try to jawbone reporters out of using the term. But presumably the word itself has yet to become itself a cause of action. And cut your guaranteed benefits? Can't we hit McCrery's dingbat lawyer for threatening like a frivolous lawsuit or something? No one denies that the president's plan will cut guaranteed benefits. The claim is only that private accounts might make up the shortfall.

I mean, it's hard to know how much to belabor this man's ridiculousness. But perhaps it is enough to see it as a sign of the low ebb to which phase-out has arrived that a representative who has already flip-flopped on this issue twice in the last six weeks is now responding to a hostile political ad by threatening legal action for making claims that are demonstrably factual.

From the Post: "The Treasury Department yesterday announced the formation of a Social Security 'war room' ... The war room, which the administration is calling the Social Security Information Center, will track lawmakers' remarks to their local news outlets, to help the White House detect signs of Republican concern or Democratic compromise."

Gone for a day and someone tries to poach my gig?

Alright I'm outta here ... Back to Ed.

I'm gonna turn over the keys to this operation for a couple days. So this is a sign-off post. But before I go, a few points.

First off, every sign I see tells me that Sen. Lieberman is looking to cut a deal of some sort with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina and thus with the White House. It would be a kinder, gentler phase-out. But phase-out just the same.

Individually, Lieberman's vote isn't that consequential. At present I don't think the White House could get majority votes for a phase-out bill in either chamber. But give the president and the congressional leadership that bipartisan cover they've been hunting for and things could change very, very quickly. Lieberman would probably put a few more Senate Dems in play and also firm up the whole Republican caucus. Same thing in the House.

As I said, I think the probable deal involves raising the cap and using those new funds for private accounts, thus getting around the idea that it's a 'carve-out'. Of course, you can imagine other permutations. And there's no limit to the policy creativity of a truly faint heart. Whether such a compromise would ever fly or not is another question. But I suspect it's largely beside the point because once you're to that point you're into a process of legislative horse-trading and conference committees. And whether or not some people on the hill realize it, the Republicans control both houses of congress and the White House. So at that point they can pretty much do what they want.

You do have to wonder -- really, really wonder -- about the roots of the urge to split the difference on phase-out seeing as the public is against it and turning more against with time. The policy and the politics are both lined up on one side of the ledger on this one. This isn't about garnering lots of press as the dealmaker, invites to the chat shows or the yearned-for plaudits of an increasingly right-leaning dinner-party centrism. And it shouldn't be about angling for mentions in the Post's increasingly fatuous Social Security editorials. This is about saving Social Security and now about preserving it for a long time to come.

So, Lieberman's the weakpoint in the wall against Social Security phase-out. Sen. Carper too -- but, my gut tells me, not as much as Joe. So if there's a time to pull out all the stops to save Social Security, to mobilize pressure and exert coercive persuasion, now's the time and Lieberman's the guy.

If anything, the press coverage has understated just had badly the Republicans got hammered out in those townhalls last week. So I'm going to be really curious to see if there are any more shake-ups in the Conscience Caucus as a result. I've gotten a partial transcript of some of the stuff Rep. Chris Chocola (R) of Indiana said at his townhall meeting back in South Bend. So there's more of his funny-business to be discussed. Even more though, watch for signs of lots of them wanting to cut a deal and get out.

So, that's it for me for now. I'm going to be turning over the keys to Ed Kilgore of NewDonkey.com and the Democratic Leadership Council. (And for those of you who are most accustomed to thinking of the DLC as a topic in theodicy, be nice.) Ed's a good friend. I'm a big fan of his site. And he's an extremely shrewd observer of American politics in all its facets, both high and low. I'm looking forward to reading what he has to say.

I'm a big fan of Sen. Joe Biden (D) of Delaware. But I usually figure him for a foreign policy and judiciary guy, rather than a big hitter on domestic policy. But take a look at his appearance today with Sen. Santorum (R) on Meet The Press (which you can see here and read here).

He hits all the key points. Like: "No matter how you cut it, this real debate on personal accounts is about the legitimacy of Social Security; it's not about the solvency of Social Security."

Yes, just so.

Or this: "And the presumption that Social Security can't meet its obligations rests on the notion that the federal government will default, something it's never done in 220 years, on an obligation, on Treasury notes, IOUs, just like the IOUs Japan has and other countries have in terms of buying our Treasury bonds. And so I don't think we'll default."

So true!

It was a minor masterpiece of counter-bamboozlism.

The Count, Rep. Chris Chocola (R) of Indiana, just won't quit.

He continues to deny that he ever supported privatization, let alone privatizing all of Social Security. Chocola claims that anyone who says this is either making it up or distorting his words.

So just for the record let's put down, word for word, what he told an editorial board meeting with the Elkhart Truth back in October 2000 ...

"Bush's plan of individual investment of 2 percent of the money is a start. Eventually, I'd like to see the entire system privatized. It's not a 'risky scheme.' There will be a series of investment options for people, professionally managed. If one isn't performing for you, you can change every year. We're not going to let people invest all of their money in Yahoo!

People will be smart enough to understand their risk level. I believe people can make good decisions, and I know they ask really good questions before they make decisions. Will somebody screw it up? No question. But the government is screwing up the whole thing right now.

The whole thing is optional, and it's good for a couple of reasons. One, it's your money and nobody can touch it. It doesn't end up being borrowed by the federal government to pay off other things. Two, it gives you a much better return than you'd ever get out of Social Security. Right now, younger people are getting a negative return on their money.

The stock market has performed at 8 percent return over the past 70 years - that's through wars and depression. If you give people the opportunity, they'll build their self reliance and self respect because they'll be making a direct impact on their lives."

Less than a <$Ad$>month later, on the eve of the election, as his campaign started to swirl down the tubes, Chocola said that claims that he supported a total privatization of Social Security were false: "There is no one proposing, including me, a plan of total privatization."

When he ran again in 2002 he said: "I do not support the privatization of Social Security."

Yesterday at his townhall meeting, according to the South Bend Tribune, he claimed that "allowing people to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into personal accounts is at least one part of the final solution on Social Security."

Final solution? How about, is that your final answer?

Longview (Texas) News-Journal, Feb. 26th: "Former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey said Friday that Social Security should be phased out rather than saved."

So there it is. Not only does Armey think Social Security should be "phased out", he believes, as he is quoted as saying in the article, that the eventual effect of the Bush plan will be phase-out.

(Read the whole article, which gives the context, but the exact quote in which he used this phase is when he says that: "I think if you leave people free to choose, it will be phased out by competition." This of course is another way of saying that if you let people pull their payroll taxes out of Social Security it will eventually cripple the program.)

Now, in case folks need a precise flow-chart of how to work this, Dick Armey is the head of FreedomWorks. And FreedomWorks is one of the three or four major groups funding and organizing the push for President Bush's privatization plan.

So the head of one of the main groups funding the PR blitz for President Bush's privatization plan says Social Security should be "phased out" and that the eventual effect of the Bush plan will be phase out.

And one other thing, can we get a video or transcript of this talk?

(ed.note: Thanks to this fellow for letting me know about this wonderful article.)

We hear from our observers <$NoAd$>on the scene that Rep. Chris Chocola's (R) meeting in South Bend last night was a bit more raucous than this article in the South Bend Tribune lets on. And they say it was pretty raucous.

In an interview later with the Tribune, Chocola showed again that if patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel (a la Dr. Johnson), Moveon.org is the last excuse of House Republicans who get a shellacking at their Social Security townhall events. Chocola claimed that Moveon TV ads from a couple weeks ago "may have played a role in the demeanor of the South Bend session."

(For a general overview of the mood on Social Security in the Indiana meetings -- including the Count's rough ride -- see this piece in today's Indianapolis Star.)

We were particularly interested in Chocola's response to a question about raising the cap on the payroll tax. A Notre Dame professor named Marty Wolfson cited what appears to have been the SSA's new actuarial memo (or perhaps an earlier iteration of it), which shows that eliminating the payroll tax cap would keep Social Security solvent through 2079 and beyond. Chocola replied that "if it was that easy, it would have been done already" and then went on to say that it wouldn't make any difference anyway since the Trust Fund doesn't really exist.

Then, according to the Tribune, Chocola attempted what can only be called a bravura performance in misunderstanding cause and effect. Chocola argued, according to Tribune reporter James Wensits, that "if the government had not borrowed the money from Social Security it would have borrowed it elsewhere, and the money would still have been spent."

Now, if Chocola really said this, it's one of those statements that gets so many things wrong or upside down that it's hard to know where to begin. But let's at least start by noting that the federal government does not have to run big annual deficits that make it harder than it need be to make good on future obligations to Social Security. Second, Chocola either doesn't grasp or ignores the main point. Had the money not been borrowed from Social Security, the issue is not that it would still have been spent. The issue is that had the money been borrowed from anywhere else but Social Security we wouldn't even be hearing a peep about the idea of not paying it back.

We'll have more on the Count later -- including more about why he just can't admit that only four years ago he supported privatization of the entire Social Security program.

(ed.note: A special note of thanks to our South Bend correspondent DR.)