Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

A number of readers, particularly current and former Hill staffers, have written in to say that we're reading too much into Rep. Jim Moran's constituent letter professing an open mind about President Bush's Social Security phase-out plan.

As a general matter of congressional office practice, I think this is right. A good staffer never wants to lock his or her boss into a position in response to a constituent letter, absent some pressing reason to do so.

But abolishing Social Security isn't just any issue. For Democrats, it's an issue of fundamental importance and core values. And it promises to be the legislative issue of the next congress.

With that in mind, I think it's well for constituents to insist on a clear and unambiguous statement of where their representatives stand on this issue -- not the standard 'glad to hear your views; it's an important issue; we'll see what happens.'

Since the last time we ran down the list of the Fainthearted Faction, <$NoAd$> there have been a few changes. Rep. Harold Ford, formerly the Dean of the Faction, has lost his leadership post because of his statement opposing the Bush and Cato plans for phasing out Social Security. And now Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia is making a play for the leadership.

Furthermore, out of the blue, Gov. Ed Rendell has joined the Faction under the bylaws allowing 'Associate Member' status for active politicians not currently serving in Congress. And finally Rep. Ike Skelton confirmed his status in the Faction by expressing what the AP has called "wariness rather than outright opposition" to the Bush plan to phase out Social Security.

So, without further ado, here's the current membership list of the Fainthearted Faction according to the latest tabulations of the TPM research and analysis department ...

Fainthearted Faction

Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark)
Rep. Allen Boyd (D-FL) (L&P!)
Rep. Robert "Bud" Cramer (D-AL)
Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn) (*)
Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisc)
Rep. James Moran (D-VA) (*)
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NB)
Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN)
Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO) (*)
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA)
Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn)
Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss)

Associate Members

Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) (*)

[ed. note: "L&P!" denotes members who are 'Loud and Proud' and now actively supporting the Bush Social Security phase-out plan. Asterisks by the name of members link to recent events which have led to their promotion, demotion or other status updates within the Faction.]

As you know, we're always looking for more information on the Fainthearted Faction. So if you know of a Democrat who belongs on the list, please let us know. We're also eager to find out more about possible primary challengers to Faction members.

Back in the late 1990s, Democratic policy types gave a lot of thought to various 'asset-building' policy initiatives -- the idea being to encourage and even supplement investment and asset-building across a broad spectrum of the population, particularly among middle and lower income Americans who have been limited in their opportunities to do so, both by a simple lack of money and because many of the tax deferred investment options which have been created in recent decades aren't that accesssible to them.

As the Social Security debate heated up, a number of those policy types started wedding the two ideas together -- a particularly influential one was President Clinton who announced such a plan during his second term. Whereas Republicans wanted to phase out Social Security and replace it with private investment accounts, Democrats wanted to preserve Social Security and supplement it with investment accounts, often with the idea of setting up every child at birth with an account and a small contibution to start them on their way to building their own savings either for college, a first home, a business or even for retirement. Some suggested doing it at birth; others thought to have it kick after each child finishes high school, thus adding an incentive to finishing a basic education.

If you look on his website, Rep. Harold Ford has one of these plans that he's clearly very interested in. He calls it the Aspire Act and you can see the details on it here on his site.

He and Rep. Patrick Kennedy are cosponsoring the bill with Reps. Petri and English in the House and Sens. Santorum and Corzine (another odd couple) have introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

I mention all this because if folks like Rep. Ford want to get people investing and building assets from early in life, they don't have to abolish Social Security to do it. Plans like this are right there on the shelf to get behind. And Ford's isn't even on the shelf. He's already working on it.

And after all why would any Democrat ever give a dime or lift a finger for any pol who voted to phase out Social Security?

As we've noted now several times, actual membership in the Fainthearted Faction requires that you be a sitting member of the House or Senate. But charter membership is available to all active political figures.

Like the Governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell for instance.

Gov. Rendell went on Hardball on the 29th, when Andrea Mitchell was subbing for Chris Matthews. And when she asked him about Social Security and his advice to President Bush, here's what he said ...

If you`re looking at Social Security, there, there's got to be room to compromise. The work that Senator Breaux did and Senator Kerrey did with some of the moderate Republicans really is a road map for us to solve Social Security. And maybe we do what the president wants to do, private savings accounts as a pilot program and see where it goes, something that is more fundable and doesn't run up the national debt.

In the words of the great Rodney King: <$Ad$>"Can't we all just get along?"


And people wonder why Dems are always getting rolled?

Senators Breaux and Kerrey, of course, were both supporters of a private-accounts-based Social Security phase-out and Gov. Rendell thinks their work is a good "road map"? No wonder he's so happy to sign on with the Bush plan.

And a pilot program of private accounts?

That's great. A short-term trial of long-term investing. That's got to be up there with prim-and-proper orgasms and nouvelle cuisine burritos as ideas that just blow the lid off the ridiculometer.

Why is the Governor of Pennsylvania in the Fainthearted Faction? As far as I know, President Bush doesn't even have a brother in the state who could run against him.

That's the thing with the Fainthearted Faction: if it's not one thing it's another. One minute they're finding ways to cozy up to President Bush to abolish Social Security and the next they're in another of their incessant leadership battles over who's going to be the chief of their motley crew.

So, for instance, we noted that yesterday the Dean of the Faction, Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. of Tennessee, had issued a statement stating clearly that he will not "support changing the Social Security system as has been proposed by President Bush, nor do I support Social Security proposals advanced by the CATO Institute ... [because] "both of these proposals have the potential to harm current beneficiaries by paying for the transition costs by issuing debt."

Now, let's be clear what Rep. Ford did and didn't say. He says he won't support the president's plan or the Cato plan because they want to fund the transition costs with a couple trillion dollars of new borrowing. But he's also quite careful to say that, in principle, he does still believe in a private accounts-based (partial) phase-out of Social Security. He just doesn't see any way to pay for it.

Given the current fiscal shape of the country that pretty much has to mean Ford's out of the Social Security phase-out business, at least for the foreseeable future, since where else are those trillions of dollars going to come from if not more good-old-fashioned Bush borrowing?

But one can at least imagine that Ford might sign on to Sen. Graham's plan, which envisions funding the transition costs of the phase-out by removing the 'cap' on payroll taxes for upper income earners and cracking down on corporate welfare.

So that's a definite possibility to consider. But at the end of the day, the Fainthearted Faction is about getting all wobbly in the knees when President Bush comes calling with all his Social Security abolition love talk. And even if Ford's statement doesn't quite get him out of the Faction, it's certainly a challenge to his leadership of the group.

And wouldn't you know it, just when Ford starts letting his guard down, here comes Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia to make his challenge. Just as Rep. Ford was issuing his statement against the Bush phase-out plan, one TPM reader-constituent was getting a letter in the mail from Rep. Moran.

Now, you probably know Jim Moran is in Faction because of his vote against the Filner amendment back in 2001. Aside from that, though, he's been a pretty low-profile member of the group.

But this TPM reader-constituent sent a note to Rep. Moran asking him whether he planned to support President Bush's phase-out plan given that he was a member of the Fainthearted Faction. The reader made it pretty clear that Moran would lose his support and even gain a new opponent if he did. But in the letter he sent in reply, Rep. Moran makes quite clear that the Social Security phase-out option is very much on the table for him. You can read the text of the letter for yourself, with its various paeans to the importance of Social Security and Medicare and how we have to save them.

But the closest he ever comes to any specifics about where he comes down on a private-accounts-based phase-out is when he says: "As Congress considers legislation that would affect the privatization, solvency, and benefits of these two crucial programs [Medicare and Social Security], I will certainly keep your thoughtful concerns in mind."

If that's not a bid for the leadership of the Faction, I don't know what is.

Now, here's what strikes me as particularly noteworthy about Moran's bid to displace Ford. Just this last cycle Moran faced a very serious challenger in the Democratic primary -- opposition that stemmed from various points of unpleasantness that cropped up over recent years.

He ended up winning the primary and then coasting to victory in his Democratic district. But when he was in that primary battle he banked a lot on the backing of Gov. Howard Dean (who Moran had endorsed at the height of the Dean surge) as well as his early opposition to the Iraq war.

It is often pointed out -- and rightly so -- that support for Gov. Dean in the Democratic primaries was not as clearly ideologically left as it was often portrayed in the media. (Dean, after all, was pretty much a centrist as governor of Vermont.) But his support was activist and oppositional. And in playing up both his support from Dean and his early opposition to the war, Moran was appealing to Democrats who are fed up with what many of them perceive as Democratic accomodationism in Washington.

So now we find out that after all that Moran is -- if I'm reading his constituent letter right -- one of very few Democrats in Congress who's not prepared to oppose the president's Social Security phase-out plan.

A leadership shake-up in the Fainthearted Faction? Possibly so. We'll bring you the latest as soon we know more.

First, Republican Dino Rossi came in first in the Washington governor's race by a minuscule margin. And he asked Democrat Christine Gregoire to concede. Then there was a recount and various recheckings and Gregoire came in first by a similar infinitesimally small margin. And now the Republican Secretary of State has certified the election and Gregoire is the winner and official Governor-elect.

So now Rossi has a new angle. He says Gregoire should join him in calling for a whole new election to be held. You know, to ensure the integrity of the process.

Newsflash: she ain't interested.

Says Gregoire: "A do-over ... is only in golf. We call it a mulligan. This is not golf, and this is not practice. This is an election. It's had three counts."

Now some of the locals are putting together an email campaign to tell Rossi it's time to hang it up.

Pencil-Necks Unite!

Ayn Rand institute says US aid to disaster victims is wrong, though private charity "may be entirely proper, especially considering that most of those affected by this tragedy are suffering through no fault of their own." (emphasis added)

I'm waiting to hear about the minority of victims suffering because of self-inflicted tsunami damage.

Give a read to this post on the 'moral values' issue by Ed Kilgore over at the NewDonkey website.

A new statement out from Rep. Harold Ford: "I do not support changing the Social Security system as has been proposed by President Bush, nor do I support Social Security proposals advanced by the CATO Institute. In fact, both of these proposals have the potential to harm current beneficiaries by paying for the transition costs by issuing debt. Piling on more red ink to the existing federal budget deficit and the national debt will do both long and short term harm to our economy. I do believe that the system needs to be reformed but I do not support changing the Social Security system as President Bush has proposed."