Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

President Bush takes his phase-out follies to Alabama today. And we're filing this nugget under Heading: Bamboozlepalooza, Subsection: Ouch!

Republicans hold seven of Alabama's nine congressional seats, but most won't be there when Bush speaks today. Rep. Mike Rogers of Anniston is the only congressman who has announced he will attend, and he has publicly expressed doubts about Bush's plan. Other congressmen cited committee meetings and congressional votes as reasons for their absence.

So the only guy who'll show up is the one who's got the guts to tell him 'no' to his face?

An interesting set of choices.

In USA Today, Susan Page has a list of "Six men who'll shape the future." These are "lesser-known figures [who] also have a lot to say about what will happen [in the Social Security debate]."

She has John Cogan, a pro-privatization Stanford Professor close to the president, who served on his Social Security Commission in 2001; Bill Novelli of AARP; Rep. Bill Thomas, Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee; Sen. Lindsey Graham; Rep. Harold Ford; and Derrick Max, head of the pro-phase-out group Alliance for Worker Retirement Security and Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security (COMPASS).

Now, Bill Novelli is a key player in the pro-Social Security constellation today. No question.

After that you've got the head of two of the key pro-privatization pressure groups allied with the White House, one of the president's privatization advisors from academia, two Republican members of Congress who support private accounts, and a Democrat who Page identifies as perhaps the one most likely to cut a deal with the White House to support privatization.

As it happens, I think Page's information is out of date on Ford. Despite being a former Dean of the Faction, I think Ford has set out a clear and what we might term enforceable position opposing privatization.

Still, all told, Page has one clear opponent of privatization, four clear proponents of privatization and the Democrat she thinks may be the member of his party closest to supporting privatization.

Articles like this shouldn't be forced into a narrow 3-for, 3-against mold. But I think there's a bit of imbalance here, no? That's especially so when you consider that by any reasonable measure, to date, the pro-Social Security forces have been winning this debate, not withstanding a near total exclusion from power in Washington. They're not doing it with committee chairmen or presidential advisors, certainly.

You really have to wonder if Page is following the folks on that side. With the debate moving in the direction it is, there must be someone pushing beside Bill Novelli, right? How about Roger Hickey, for example, the co-director of the Campaign for America's Future and one of the founders of Americans United to Protect Social Security, the organizational nexus of the pro-Social Security groups? Or Hans Riemer of Rock the Vote? Another obvious pick would be Tom Matzzie, the new Washington director for Moveon, the group that's played a big role in coordinating on-the-ground push-back against the various Republican townhalls and presidential visits.

Obviously, you could pick a bunch of other people. But reading Page's article makes me wonder and worry how much the city's most prominent reporters are in touch with who it is precisely who's heading up this fight on the pro-Social Security side.

The 'In This Together Campaign' (ITT) is the group heading the anti-phase-out forces in New York state. And at the moment that largely means trying to get Republican members of Congress to come out of their hardened bunkers and answer constituents questions about President Bush's privatization plan.

To date, from what we understand, not one Republican member of the New York congressional delegation has held a townhall meeting about Social Security. ITT has been trying to muscle some of these folks into showing their faces in their districts. And one of them, Rep. John Sweeney has agreed to hold a meeting to answer constituent questions. So far, according to ITT press releases from March 9th, Reps. Boehlert, Reynolds, Kelly and King are all refusing to hold public meetings.

I can certainly understand where these folks might not want to attend meetings put together by ITT. But their unwillingness to hold any public forums on the issue is pretty telling. I mean, you'd think they could at least hold one of those Bush-style meetings with the animatronic citizens, right?

Then there's Rep. Vito Fossella (R) from Staten Island. A few weeks ago he told a local TV interviewer that Democrats were "irresponsible" for not going along with President Bush's phase-out plan and that failing to act now would lead to either tax hikes or benefit cuts for younger Americans.

That prompted Democratic state party chair Herman "Denny" Farrell, Jr. to send off a letter to Fossella. After pointing out that the Bush plan itself calls for steep benefit cuts, he wrote: "I am writing today to ask that you pledge to rule out cutting benefits for future retirees, as President Bush's plan would do. I am sure New Yorkers in your district are eager to hear you make such a pledge."

To date, apparently there's been no reply from Fossella. So presumably Fossella is a phase-out man but for the moment he's laying low hoping he won't have to tell constituents to their faces.

Fainthearted Faction Dean Rep. Allen Boyd (D) of Florida does the playbook shuffle in his latest weekly email newsletter ...

Many who oppose reforming the Social Security program have falsely claimed that personal accounts would lead to the privatization of Social Security. I am not an advocate of privatizing Social Security, our nation's largest and most successful entitlement program. The Kolbe-Boyd bill does not privatize Social Security, but instead, allows every American the opportunity to control his or her own retirement through the creation of publicly-administered personal accounts.

Any progress on getting some to run against this joker?

In our public discussion of Social Security, many take it for granted that time (in the sense of years, not months) favors Republicans because the young seem less resistant to privatization than their elders. But there is assumption at the root of this belief that I have never seen adequately examined in public opinion data.

Simply put: Are the young more favorable to privatization because they are currently young? Or does the current generation of Americans in their twenties and early thirties represent the leading edge of a wave of cultural change that will make future Americans less averse to risk and less trusting of government programs?

Perhaps twenty years from now, when these 25 year olds are 45, they'll think more like 45 year olds today. After all, the young tend to have a difficult time really getting their heads around the idea that they too will one day grow old and die. That doesn't mean we're moving toward an immortality society; it means they're young. They'll learn.

Now, I'm sure there must be available time series data that would provide some insight into this question. I'm just not familiar with it. But I came across some information a few days ago that at least suggests some of our assumptions may be wrong.

A few days ago, I noted how a lot of the recent polling information on Social Security is difficult to use because many of the questions are ones the pollsters have just started asking. So we have no point of reference to what people thought in January of this year or January 2004 or in January 2000.

But if you look at the data in the recent New York Times poll you can see a few of the questions were also asked in June 1981.

One of those questions, which the Times pollsters apparently hadn't asked in twenty-four years was: "Would you favor or oppose making the Social Security system voluntary, so that people can choose not to pay Social Security taxes and not to get benefits?"

Last month, 37% favored the idea and 59% opposed it. In late June of '81, 53% favored it and only 41% opposed.

Another question was: "Do you expect to get back more money than you've contributed to Social Security, less money than you contributed, or about the same amount of money?"

Last month, 12% said more, 39% less and 44% said the same. In 1981 it was 15%, 50% and 28%, respectively.

Clearly, in both cases, public opinion was significantly different and in both instances less favorable toward or less confident in Social Security than Americans are today.

On two other questions, there change was minimal. The one question for which the Times has regular data going back to 1981 was: "Do you think the Social Security system will have the money available to provide the benefits you expect for your retirement?"

Last month it was 34% yes and 49% no. In 1981 it was 30% yes and 54%.

Here, as noted, there's less change. But even that cuts against (though we'd have to see the break-out data) the idea that today's youth have less confidence in the system than earlier generations.

Now, one point that's fair to bear in mind is that 1981 was shortly before Social Security did require a major reform (the 1983 Greenspan Commission one) to maintain solvency. So perhaps that fact skews the numbers. But I'm not sure how much it should have affected the question about making Social Security voluntary. And on the 'Do you think Social Security will be there when you retire' question, the Times has fairly regular soundings going back two decades. And the numbers seem fairly stable over time. The 'worst' sample came from 1990 when 60% thought Social Security wouldn't be there for them when they retired. But in not one case did more people answer 'Yes' than 'No'.

If you were in your early 30s in 1981 and you were one of the 54% who said, no, well, you were just wrong. Heck, even the chief phase-out man himself, President Bush, says he'll give you a flat guarantee.

Certainly, there must be more information and analysis available on this question. And I'd be curious to see it. But this limited glimpse increases my skepticism about the prevailing assumptions about youth attitudes toward Social Security and what it foretells for the program's future.

I'm not sure sure whether this counts as a trick question. But what does it mean precisely to have the likes of Rep. Jim McCrery say you're 'unserious'?

McCrery, you'll remember, is the congressman from Shreveport, Lousiana, who first supported phase-out, then rejected it, then recanted his rejection after a trip to the White House where he apparently did a spell in The Chamber. And all in about a week and a half.

More recently, after again embracing privatization, he had his lawyer threaten the Campaign for America's Future and a local cable system with a lawsuit for running an which claimed he supported privatization.

But today, at the first Ways and Means Committee hearing on Social Security, Rep. McCrery told Democrats: "If you want to be serious players, then you will stop this nonsense of saying, 'We won't (accept) personal accounts.'"

That's the best he can do.

It's amazing how many Republicans (and how much of Washington, or at least the titled caste) can't get their collective heads around the idea that Democrats won't vote to replace a portion of Social Security with private accounts.