Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I'm going to be stepping away from the site this week; but I'll be leaving it in the hands of an eclectic trio of guest bloggers that I think you'll really enjoy. I'll pop in here and there with a post. But I am taking a week away from the site to ... well, it sounds so matter-of-fact and prosaic to just say it, but to get married. If all goes according to plan I'll be back fulltime next Monday or Tuesday.

Starting Monday, Jon Chait of The New Republic will take over for a couple days. He has a new article out this week on the Dems and just why they should do everything in their power to stop Bush in his tracks on phasing out Social Security. (I'm hoping the TNR Internet gods will choose to make his piece available to non-subscribers, given its inherent newsworthiness and the fact that I imagine he'll be referring to it with some frequency. No need on the companion piece by Gregory Mankiw, for reasons noted here.)

Signing on for the last couple days of the week will be Harry Shearer, actor, political wit, voice on The Simpsons, Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap, creator of Le Show and so much more. Notwithstanding the fact that I'll be in my last couple days of bachelorhood I'll definitely be stopping by a lot to see what on earth Harry chooses to write about.

Then over the weekend and through Monday, Ed Kilgore of NewDonkey.com and the Democratic Leadership Council will return for more excellent posting and probably a bit more of what will hopefully be fruitful antagonism with parts of our readership. (Among other benign qualities, blogs can, I think, be a wonderful venue for group or perhaps couples therapy for squabbling national political parties.)

So, my deep thanks to each of them for minding the fort while I'm away.

I'll be around till early afternoon today.

Bless their hearts. The In This Together campaign, the New York state pro-Social Security coalition, already has up a spoof of the Bamboozlepalooza Tour website put up by the Treasury Dept. and noted below. And unlike a lot of these parodies, this one's actually straightforward and dead-pan enough to be pretty funny. Take a look.

We've fielded a bunch of questions of late about just who's paying the expenses for the Bamboozlepalooza Tour. And the question is raised again now by the fact that the administration has set up a Bamboozlepalooza website. (I kid you not.) In case you didn't know, it's strengtheningsocialsecurity.gov. Take a look. After all, you paid for it.

Now, about that question of who pays for this stuff ...

Certainly, as the government has expanded onto the Internet, it is taken as a given (and rightly so, I think) that office-holders in different branches of government will use their government websites to advocate their views. The folks on the Hill on the both sides of the aisle do it. The White House website certainly presses the White House's case. At the same time, there are strict rules about those sites not being used in political -- or more specifically, electoral -- campaigns.

It seems to me that there is some question about whether the White House can or should be able to set up a site for its own propaganda using a .gov extension. But that doesn't seem to me to be the issue most worthy of discussion.

What about the Bamboozlepalooza Tour itself? Who pays? Yes, no doubt, presidents can go on tours of the country pressing their legislative agenda. You can go back to the ill-fated example of Woodrow Wilson to find precedents for that.

It is also true that presidents and cabinet secretaries make all sorts of appearances before private organizations where the public is not allowed or appearances where attendance is restricted on various bases. It is even true that tickets for presidential events are often doled out (under both parties) as a sort of minor patronage for local political supporters and bigwigs. And no one would deny that a White House can take practical steps to manage attendence at presidential events.

But it has become quite clear in this case -- almost old-hat, you might say -- that all the events the president is holding on Bamboozlepalooza are restricted to people who support his agenda. Sometimes disagree-ers (or should we call them dissidents?) slip through. But the White House takes affirmative and fairly successful steps to exclude those who are not supporters.

We got used to this during the campaign. But that's different: Campaigns are private organizations. They have their own money. They can do pretty much what they want in this regard and are only limited by the constraints of public ridicule.

Taken altogether, though, something seems qualitatively different to me about what's happening here -- specifically, the nexus of taxpayer funding and ideological litmus tests for inclusion. Nobody would imagine that the president would or could restrict public White House tours to political supporters. Yet here the administration has undertaken what is quite publicly a taxpayer-funded public advocacy campaign. And yet only those who pass a political test are allowed to attend.

I know we all sort of already know that. But if it doesn't violate a law (and perhaps it does), it should certainly violate public sensibilities more than it seems to be and provoke more than mere eye-rolling. Along with phony-baloney news, doctored government statistics and paid-off pundits, it is yet another sign -- if now, admittedly, only on the margins -- of the Pravdafication of civic discourse under this administration.

A note from TPM Reader <$NoAd$> PC ...

Back around the time of the Clinton health care debate William Kristol drafted an influential memo suggesting that the best course for the GOP was "principled"/ideological opposition to ANY compromise on a universal health care plan. Beyond his ideological opposition to further government intervention in this area, he argued that politically, setting up a grand new entitlement (which would no doubt be tinkered with and expanded over the years) would redound to the Democrats long term poltical interests. He was very wrong on the substance of the issue - but very right on the politics of it. The Republicans paid no price, indeed prospered from their derailing of national health care.

Now we face the mirror image of the Clinton health care debate and it's instructrive to see how both the media and the opposition party play their hands. I don't recall any hue and cry from the Beltway pundit class that the GOP needed to come up with an alternative to Clinton's plan. In fact the media focus was exclusively on Clinton and the trouble he was having crafting a plan and rounding up votes. By the way Clinton had much more support in Congress (and in the country) on the health care issue than Bush does now on Soc Sec; yet the Beltway pundits are putting the heat on Dems to come up with their own plan.

As for the Dems, it's a dispiriting commentary on the weakness and cowardice of the national party that people like Carville are falling for the "we can't be seen to be just obstructionists" line. Beltway Dems are so inured [to] the Russert/Cokie/Judy/Matthews Conventional Wisdom axis that their political radar is way off target. What they don't seem to understand is that standing firm against the destruction of Social Security IS an agenda and a statement of values. As Chait wrote in the TNR - the notion that Democrats will pay a political price for stopping an unpopular program is utter lunacy - but the GOP with the help of the Beltway pundit class are pushing this line. Could people like Harry Reid and Joe Biden really believe this?

Here's hoping that like Kristol's Memo more than a decade ago, Chait's piece becomes the Dem playbook.

He makes some very good points.

Another follow-up on the Greenberg/Carville memo. And before proceeding, let me again stipulate that I think the thrust of what they say in it has been mistaken in some cases and tendentiously distorted in others.

That said, take this passage from the front of the memo, in which they ask why there has not been more fallout for the president from the public's very negative response to phase-out ...

This ought to be the Democrats’ moment, as the president’s Social Security proposal crashes against the wall of the public’s deep doubts. Support for the president’s proposal has fallen to 36 percent and perhaps even lower, depending on question wording. 1 Worse for the president, 40 percent of voters strongly oppose his plan, rising to 63 percent among seniors. Congressional Democrats are now winning voters over 45 years by 12 points, according to the NPR survey, after faltering badly among aging voters just 4 months earlier. But Bush’s plan is not that popular with younger voters who divide evenly on it.

So, we ask progressives to consider, why have the Republicans not crashed and burned? Why has the public not taken out their anger on the Congressional Republicans and the president? We think the answer lies with voters’ deeper feelings about the Democrats who appear to lack direction, conviction, values, advocacy or a larger public purpose.

So does this mean the Democrats <$Ad$>are being punished for not having their own 'plan'? For only saying 'no'? That can't possibly be what the authors' mean. And to know that you need only look at your calendar. The president is less than eight weeks into his second term as president. And over that period his approval on Social Security has collapsed. To imagine that what we should expect is that his presidency would now be mired in some crisis of legitimacy is ridiculous.

Believe me, give it time. If the Democrats handle this right, the political suffering of the president and his party has scarcely begun. And they should suffer mightily for pressing a policy that would carve a path of devastation through the American middle class.

The grafs above only make sense if what the two are talking about is a much longer-term problem of public fuzziness over just what Democrats stand-for. And that very much is a problem -- one that had no little to do with their losing the presidential contest in November. But this is why Democrats need to take the opportunity of the Social Security debate to outline their values, their vision of where the country should be going on Social Security and related issues. Flatly opposing phase-out is not the problem; it's the first step to the solution.

Should the Democrats come forward with their own 'plan' on Social Security? That's certainly what Republicans are saying. And it's a cry taken up now by many establishment pundits. Indeed, the strategy memo put out last week by Stan Greenberg and James Carville was widely seen as buying into that line of reasoning, though I think that's a misinterpretation (which I'll discuss later.)

The shortest version of an answer is simply 'no.' But I think there are really two questions here. And it's worth taking the time to distinguish them.

Not only do I think you could find very few Democratic politicians or strategists who think it's time for the Dems to step forward with a concrete counter-proposal on Social Security; if you were armed with truth serum, I'm certain you'd find no Republican strategists or pols who believe it is in the Democrats' interests to do so.

You needn't go any further to figure this out than the fact that the president has yet to step up and put a concrete proposal on the table. Until he does, Republicans who make this argument deserve nothing more than laughter. The White House has rather preferred to elaborate the president's proposal through a series of leaks so that he will always have some level of deniability when anyone tries to point out how bad a deal his plan would be for most Americans. When the president's plan is sinking like an anvil only a fool would think it was a wise course to put forward a more detailed proposal to distract from the collapse of the president's plan.

Another reason it makes no sense is that it buys into the essential dishonesty of the president's political argument -- namely, that we're now debating how to 'save' Social Security: He has a plan. So the Dems should have one too.

But, as we've argued repeatedly here, that's not what we're debating. As press commentary has belatedly but increasingly awakened to, what we're now debating is whether to keep Social Security or to replace it with private accounts. There's no sense -- as the Senate Dems have now rightly made clear --to getting into a debate over the details of how to strengthen the current program while we're still debating whether it should be preserved. Indeed, no debate over solvency is possible until an unequivocal agreement is made that the program will be preserved.

But there's another part of this 'have a plan' argument that I think was what the Greenberg/Carville memo was trying to get at. That is this: For the medium-term and long-term, this debate on Social Security provides Democrats with an opportunity far richer and more important than whatever political rewards may be reaped in 2006. It provides them with an opportunity -- perhaps best to say, a pivot point -- to begin explaining their larger and entirely distinct vision for where the country should go in the coming years. For years, for a host of reasons, Democrats have been afraid to do that. Now they should. This isn't a right-left issue within the Democratic party. It's more to do with the relative freedom of being an opposition party and how much President Bush has no exposed the GOP real values.

Now, I know I've dealt here in a lot of generalities. And I want to push the site in the direction of an expanded discussion of these questions in the coming weeks. But for the moment, just on the question of Social Security, let's say this: People who oppose the president's plan to phase-out Social Security should keep hammering on his proposal non-stop, from now until the ballot boxes close in California on election day in 2006. They should press the members of Congress who are defending it and yet don't have the guts to actually endorse it (folks like the Count and Rep. Ferguson in New Jersey). But while it would be foolish in the extreme to get baited into putting forth their own solvency plan, hammering the president for wanting to phase-out Social Security should go hand and hand with a discussion (amongst Democrats themselves, as much as anything) of what the broader Democratic vision for retirement security is. That goes beyond Social Security. It involves explaining just why it is Democrats are so determined to keep Social Security intact. It involves explaining how we can help middle class families save more for retirement. It means putting on the table the disastrous state of private-sector pensions.

This is a golden opportunity for Democrats to start explaining their vision of where we should be going as a society and how it differs from that of the Republicans'. That's what an opposition party does.

When the man makes a good point, the man makes a good point. From today's David Broder column: "Few policy battles, Social Security being a current example, draw enough public and press interest for the legislators to feel real scrutiny. Most are in a netherworld where media coverage is cursory and interest groups' pressure determines the outcome. That's how bankruptcy reform made it through the Senate and why it will soon pass the House and be signed into law by President Bush."

From the Washington Times, the second-guessing begins: "Conservatives in and out of Congress say President Bush has been taking bad advice on Social Security, hurting his chance to win private investment accounts for younger workers."

Also note this passage from the same article ...

The senior Republican senator said privately that the only way to avoid a bad deal on Social Security may be "to pull the trigger on the nuclear option."

This, he said, would mean changing Senate rules to force an end to Democratic filibusters and a vote on Mr. Bush's judicial nominees. The Democrats likely would retaliate by filibustering all Republican bills. Republicans then could blame Democrats for blocking Social Security reform.

Others say it is too early to abandon hope of passing the kind of Social Security plan that conservatives support.

"Once Americans understand the choices they have -- that they will own their personal retirement accounts and will be able to pass them on to loved ones, they will flock to personal retirement accounts," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican.

Some dreams die <$NoAd$>hard.

NYT: "Under the Bush administration, the federal government has aggressively used a well-established tool of public relations: the prepackaged, ready-to-serve news report that major corporations have long distributed to TV stations to pitch everything from headache remedies to auto insurance. In all, at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years, records and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government's role in their production."