Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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So are there any senators in the Fainthearted Faction?

Hard to tell -- certainly a lot harder than in the House, where you've got Ford as Dean and Allen Boyd as Vice Chair.

The only guy who seems clearly in is Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

He's frequently talked up by the White House as someone who they think they can get to come across. And here's what the Journal said about him last week ...

Mr. Nelson says he is "not saying no to some level of privatization " and is spending the holiday recess assembling a template for overhaul. He says he won't support a plan that could destabilize the current system and says he will insist on "real accounting" in tracking the cost. Like Sens. Conrad and Graham, he doesn't rule out painful steps like cutting benefits. "It's always an option," Mr. Nelson says. "It's sort of the last thing you do."

So, by Senate standards, Nelson's definitely in <$Ad$> the faction. But even he seems pretty tentative in his support, and seems to be signaling, in a couple points he makes, that at least the current Bush plan would be a hard sell for him.

The Journal also suggests that Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, who's ranking member on the Budget Committee, is a possible pick-up for the White House. But from what I can tell from the piece they do so on pretty thin evidence. Conrad just did co-author this USA Today OpEd with Lindsey Graham, and the piece conspicuously does not rule out privatization. But from what relatively little I know of the guy I have a hard time seeing him play ball on this. And his pretty strong deficit hawk credentials makes me even more dubious of his signing on to the fiscal insanity of the president's plan. So without some clearer evidence I see no reason to put him in the Faction.

(It's worth noting that senators, for good reasons and bad, are usually temperamentally averse to ruling things out categorically before the legislative process gets underway.)

I've also had concern mentioned to me about three other senators -- Lincoln, Carper and Bayh, in part because of their sponsorship of a new group called Third Way.

I feel a certain amount of disorientation or ideological vertigo calling out a group named Third Way since I think of myself as a third way kind of a guy and basically Clintonite in my politics, all the political polarization of the last four years notwithstanding. But what caught some folks attention is that Third Way's president is a guy named Jonathan Cowan.

You may know Cowan as the founder of Americans for Gun Safety, a group that tried to give gun-safety measures more reach into the redder part of the country. But veterans of the Social Security debate also remember him as a founder of Lead...or Leave, a Gen X advocacy group, and also a staunch supporter of privatization.

As recently as May 16th 2000 he wrote an OpEd in the Christian Science Monitor which hit all the main themes of the privatization argument.

Still, that's just way too thin a reed in itself to get those three senators into the Faction.

So that's our very tentative run-down for the moment. Hints and allegations, yes. But when you add it all up, just one senator in the faction, Ben Nelson, and even that one not all that eagerly.

If you've any more clues or info about fainthearts in the upper chamber, definitely send them our way.

The Wall Street Journal on the Dean, from Wednesday's paper: "Republicans are eyeing Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee, a well-regarded young Democrat who has said he is open to private accounts. But a senior aide to Mr. Ford said he opposes borrowing as an option for covering transition costs."

Dear Congressman Ford,

Look, yes, I know this may seem like a sort of public way of communicating. But my tech guy has set this up so only your home computer can access this post. No one else can see it. It's set to your IP address. (I guess you've got a static IP address on your home hook-up?)

In any case, the consensus of the pols in your home state is that your angle on the Social Security privatization stuff is that you want to set yourself up for a Senate run in 2006 for Frist's seat. And this'll give you bipartisan cross-over cred with rural and conservative voters in the state that you need.

But look, if you're going to be cynical, at least do it effectively, right? This may have been a pretty bad decade-and-a-half for the Dems in Tennessee. But it isn't because Democrats support Social Security, believe me. Gay Marriage? Abortion? Guns? National Defense? Sure, probably all of them. But not excessive fealty to Social Security.

Think about it. Did Bush even get into Social Security during the campaign? Of course, not. Even Lieberman's gotten off that train. And half the people in Connecticut work on Wall Street. What do you got compared to that? Right, I didn't think so.

If you're trying to angle your way into the Senate and set yourself apart from the national Democrats, do it on abortion or the gay rights stuff. Not that I'm recommending it. But if you're going to be cynical at least do it with an issue that's going to do you some good.

If you want to pull up a seat with the real power players, being cynical ain't enough. You've gotta be cynical and smart.

I was chatting with a friend of yours today. And he says he figures you're probably just not with it enough to realize that this isn't much of a way to appeal to Democrats-turned-Republicans in your state. But, dude, I've got your back. He may not be enough of a friend to tell you. But I am, whatever I may be saying about you in the public posts.

Like I said, gay marriage? Iraq? Even maybe the Oil-for-Food angle? (Coleman's too big a doofus ever to carry that ball anywhere.) Those are some issues with some mileage in them. And like I said, if you're going to be cynical, get some mileage out of it, right?

Picture this placard ...

Harold Ford: Man Enough to Know That a Man Shouldn't Marry a Man.

Right? Right? That's great stuff.

Or maybe, this ...

Harold Ford: Putting the 'Christ' back into Christmas.

Anyway, we can come up with various angles. But you get the idea. We'll talk soon. And lemme know if you have any ideas for the database.


From the Christmas day Post ...

The U.S. military invaded Iraq without a formal plan for occupying and stabilizing the country and this high-level failure continues to undercut what has been a "mediocre" Army effort there, an Army historian and strategist has concluded.

"There was no Phase IV plan" for occupying Iraq after the combat phase, writes Maj. Isaiah Wilson III, who served as an official historian of the campaign and later as a war planner in Iraq. While a variety of government offices had considered the possible situations that would follow a U.S. victory, Wilson writes, no one produced an actual document laying out a strategy to consolidate the victory after major combat operations ended.


As a result of the failure to produce a plan, Wilson asserts, the U.S. military lost the dominant position in Iraq in the summer of 2003 and has been scrambling to recover ever since. "In the two to three months of ambiguous transition, U.S. forces slowly lost the momentum and the initiative . . . gained over an off-balanced enemy," he writes. "The United States, its Army and its coalition of the willing have been playing catch-up ever since."

Some things are just unforgivable. <$NoAd$>And this crew does a lot of them.

Tennesseans chime in on the Dean of the Fainthearted Faction ...


Democrats have one chance, and one chance only, of taking Frist's seat in '06 (I'm sure you know Frist is not running again.) Harold Ford. You are advocating a very tough trade off for folks like me; I am very likely a Ford voter regardless of what he does on S.S.; so far, the other possible Democrat contenders would not get my vote. He is the only Democrat with any substantial support in heavily Republican East Tennessee, where I live, and for a Democrat to win state wide, they have to run well in East Tennessee. (Though not necessarily carry it.) This is how Phil Bredesen managed to get elected Governor. If Democrats cut Ford, they will make a lot of Republicans very, very happy.

DL Tennessee


From what I've read, he's definitely exploring a run for Bill Frist's Senate seat in 2006, and that's going to be a high-profile race. No doubt he's trying to gain support among conservative Tennesseans on this issue, especially East Tennesseans, and trying to preempt one of his opponents - probably the tired old Van Hilleary - likely charges that he's for 'doing nothing about the bankrupt SS program'. And by attaching himself to Lindsey Graham, he's going to pound it in that he's bipartisan and works very well even with very conservative Republicans like Graham and DeMint (as opposed to the partisan Van Hilleary and Frist).

I think all of this is his well-thought out strategy of placing himself in alliances that will ultimately go nowhere (Bush's plan, though more draconian, is going to be the only choice), but he can point out his public stance with conservatives as proof he plays well with others (repuglicans, especially).

I personally think Ford would be a disaster as a Democratic candidate for Senate. He has no traction in East TN *at all*.... Problem is, no one except Gov. Bredesen on the Dem side has any traction *at all.*

MC Tennessee

Let me chime in here with at least my <$Ad$>sense of what this is about.

The point here is very much not to be writing people out of the party. The point is to corral them in on the basis of an issue of fundamental importance to Americans all across the country -- let's call it a little coercive encouragement or organizational tough love. With any of these folks in the Fainthearted Faction, if they come around to the right position, then the past is the past. There's no sense in coming up with purity tests over what this or that person said or thought in the past so long as they're on the right side now. The point of putting these guys into the Fainthearted Faction is to get them out of the Fainthearted Faction.

Like the first reader I'd hate to see Harold Ford go down over this. But I don't think that has to happen and I don't even think it's going to happen. It's a risk. But I think it's a small one and one that, if we run it, we will most likely end up with our Harold Fords and a party united around defending Social Security.

If he turns out to be that craven, Democrats are better off without him.

Following a ship to the bottom of the sea on principle is seldom a wise choice. But the thing here is not only the fundamental importance of Social Security, but the fact that this fight is quite winnable and that if the Democrats win it, the winning of it will generate dividends in cohesion, morale and respect in the minds of the American people that transcend this individual policy issue.

See, we like dividends too.

From a piece I wrote about one of the President's 2001 pro-Social Security phase out astroturf groups, the Coalition for American Financial Security, or CAFS ...

"The most striking thing about CAFS is not that it is made up of interested parties from the financial-services industry, nor that it enjoys close connections to the White House. Rather, it is the extent to which the organization has emanated from a single corporation whose interest in privatization is driven as much by ideological zeal as by the expectation of profit.

The Frank Russell Company--creator of the Russell 2000 small-cap stock index--is known within the financial-services industry for spearheading privately funded initiatives aimed at spreading laissez-faire principles of economic organization in former socialist or mixed economies around the world. This has often meant setting up organizations that advocate the privatization of social-insurance programs: exactly what CAFS is now designed to do in the United States. Russell's efforts to jump-start the privatization debate in this country began two years ago when Russell CEO Michael Phillips started the company's Social Security reform initiative and assigned Don Ezra to coordinate it.

Ezra is a global avatar of privatization and laissez-faire. A soft-spoken British national, he has worked for Frank Russell in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. From Russell's European headquarters in London, he was involved in similar efforts to privatize social insurance in Europe. While in the United Kingdom, he stirred controversy with a report arguing that British pension-fund management gave too little say to investment professionals and that the managers of U.K. pension funds were overly burdened by such factors as the need for consensus and "too much caution" in choosing investments."

That's a bit from a July 2001 article I wrote on the Social Security privatization biz.

Is Harold Ford the Dean of the Fainthearted Faction? Could be. When last we left the Tennessee up-and-comer he was saying nice things about Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-SC) private accounts bill. But little did we know that last year he came awfully close to co-sponsoring the private accounts bill of South Carolina Congressman Jim DeMint.

Here's a Bob Novak column cheering him on. Here's his statement of support for the DeMint plan on the Cato Institute 'Project on Social Security Choice' website. And here's a piece from South Carolina's The State on how he just couldn't quite get himself to sign on the dotted line at the last minute because even though he loved the plan he and DeMint couldn't decide how to pay for it.

Now, it just so happens that Congressman DeMint just got elected to the Senate. So that means that in the new Congress Ford will have the whole South Carolina Senate delegation covered in as much as that he's given the thumbs up to co-sponsoring partial phase-out bills with both of the state's senators.

In any case, a few other points. First, though he is sponsoring a partial Social Security phase-out plan, I will at least give Sen. Graham credit for a level of responsibilty on how to pay for it. He has publicly scolded President Bush's willingness to borrow one or two trillion dollars to finance his Social Security phase-out plan. And he himself has suggested eliminating the caps on payroll taxes (thus incresing the taxes on upper-income workers) to finance the transition.

At the end of the day, he still wants to partially phase-out Social Security and replace it with private accounts. And partial phase-out will lead to total phase-out. But there is some virtue I think in noting cases in which you have fundamental political and philosophical disagreements with someone and yet you can see that they are advocating what you see as bad policies with some measure of honesty and responsibility, in contrast to the likes of President Bush who is doing so with the characteristic recklessness and deception. Graham was also a standout on Abu Ghraib. So, anyway, I just wanted to note these points.

And, though I've noted this several times, I want one more time to make this point about the Fainthearted Faction, and particularly those who got grandfathered in because of their opposition to the Filner Amendment (see this earlier post if you want to know what the hell I'm talking about), because I keep hearing from readers for whom the point doesn't seem clear.

Most of the folks who are now in the Faction are there because of their opposition to the Filner Amendment. That just means that they're the first people to look at (for the reasons described in this post) if we're trying to figure out which congressional Democrats seem most likely to sign on with Bush's plan.

As we noted earlier today, three congressmen who got grandfathered into the Faction because of their opposition to the Filner Amendment have made recent statements which state fairly clear opposition to the Bush plan. Congressmen Boyd and Smith are confirmed members of the Faction for recent actions or statements. And now Harold Ford is not only in the Faction but has actually become the Dean because of his rather lengthy history of openness to phasing out Social Security.

I know this all gets complicated. But bear with me since Social Security really is an important program.

Now, in addition to being the Dean of the Fainthearted Faction, another thing to note about Rep. Ford is that he's a man with big plans --- statewide office, national office, the sky's the limit. He ran against Nancy Pelosi two years ago to be the head of the Democratic caucus when he was only in his third term and thirty-two years old, for crying out loud.

So what I'm wondering is what big funders and groups of Democrats are going to go to Ford and tell him that if he ever wants to get out of his Memphis House district just who does he think it's going to be who's going to fund and staff out his campaign?

And what about those Republicans who might not quite be ready to sign on to President Bush's plan to phase out Social Security? You know, the Conscience Caucus. Florida's Mark Foley told the AP a few days ago that out of the 232 member GOP caucus in the 109th Congress, between 125 to 150 of them might need "a lot of hand-holding" to get them to sign off on ending, or ... okay, okay, partially ending Social Security. And Illinois' Ray LaHood seemed to be thinking along the same lines.

So the Conscience Caucus may include a good seventy, eighty, even a hundred members. And they, after all, are the real issue.

The reason it's so critical to get every Democrat lined up with the right position in favor of Social Security is not simply or even principally because of the significance of their individual votes. After all, if the president can keep all his troops together they don't need any Democratic votes. The point is to raise the stakes, to make the moral responsibility as stark and as clear as possible.

If President Bush is intent on destroying Social Security and replacing it with a private accounts system, let him do it with Republican votes only. Republicans in marginal districts will be far less likely to sign on to his plan if it's an exclusively Republican enterprise, if there are no Democrats along for the ride to muddle the picture and provide illusory bipartisan cover.