Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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The latest from the Center for American Progress ...

From the people who bring you The Progress Report – the daily electronic newsletter the National Review calls "the most aggressive, most energetic opposition research in politics" – comes Thinkprogress.org, a new blog ready to revolutionize the world of research-intensive rapid response. Debuting in tandem with the State of the Union address on Feb. 2, Thinkprogress.org will give journalists and the public real-time access to American Progress’s highly regarded rapid response operation for the first time ever. And in honor of the launch, American Progress CEO John Podesta will be a guest blogger, providing live commentary throughout the entire State of the Union address.

That should be <$NoAd$>interesting.

With less than 36 hours before the president kicks off his bamboozlepalooza tour, the turmoil and turnover within the Fainthearted Faction continues to grow.

The first news comes in a piece from the New York Times titled '6 Key Democratic Senators Oppose Bush Plan on Benefits.'

On first glance, the title seems to signal a veritable Fainthearted Faction Monday Night Massacre. But while the content isn't nearly so dramatic, the piece nonetheless contains some important news.

The lead graf reads: "Six of the seven Democratic senators from the states where President Bush plans to campaign this week for his Social Security plan say they are unalterably opposed to his main principle of diverting tax money into personal investment accounts." And then later down in the piece: "If Mr. Bush cannot win the support of these Democratic senators from states where he is politically strong, it may indicate that he cannot provide the political cover that many Republican lawmakers say they will need if they are to take the political risk of voting for the president's plan."

The question is, which senators are they talking about? Four of them are Sens. Baucus, Dorgan, Nelson of Florida and Pryor. And they aren't in the Faction to start with. The seventh is Sen. Nelson of Nebraska "who said in an interview [with the Times] that he could not make a commitment on Social Security until he saw the specifics of the president's plan."

So that leaves him where we have him now -- in the Faction, but with OFO status.

The two final ones are Sens. Conrad and Lincoln.

Conrad was only barely in the Faction and only entered a few days ago. He tells the Times: "I will not be part of the unraveling the commitment of Social Security based on gutting the benefits and hoping the stock market makes up the difference and funding the transition with borrowing."

That, combined with the Times' characterization of the whole interview, and the only slight signs of Faintheartedness which got Conrad into the Faction, now takes him out.

From Sen. Lincoln, the Times got: "I'm opposed to what the president presumably wants to do. It puts in jeopardy a program that is vital to the people of Arkansas and is misleading to the young people about what they're going to end up with."

Based on the that and the totality of earlier evidence, she's out of the Faction too.

That leaves a winnowed down Senate Fainthearted Faction of four, including Nelson of Nebraska. The other three are Carper, Landrieu and Lieberman.

We haven't heard much from Carper recently.

Lieberman has had almost two feet out the door ever since his appearance on The Daily Show back on the 20th of last month. His comments on Social Security to Jon Stewart all but took him out of the Faction. But given the venue and the nature of the remarks combined with Lieberman's earlier history of recidivist Faintheartedness on phase-out, we've had something of a vexed internal debate about Lieberman's standing in the Faction.

What we decided was that we would wait for one more statement of opposition to phase-out from Sen. Lieberman, at which point he would be automatically removed from the Faction. We spoke to his office this morning and apparently the Daily Show remarks are still his most recent. So for the moment, he stays.

That leaves us with Sen. Landrieu of Louisiana. At the moment, she appears to be the senate Democrat most wedded to membership in the Fainthearted Faction, having not even given hints of imminent withdrawal. One of our most prized TPM readers is a retiree from Landrieu's home state and she's been trying for weeks now to get an answer from the senator's office about where she stands on phase-out. Finally, this week, she was able to get hold of someone in Landrieu's office who could speak to the issue. And the senator's position, she was told, is that she hasn't yet taken a position.

Our text of the day today comes from yesterday's CongressDaily PM ...

Wednesday's State of the Union speech and the subsequent unveiling of the Social Security plan will also provide Republicans with the first major test of the media and message strategies that have been developed for the Social Security debate. At the center of the GOP pitch is a language "branding" plan that Republicans hope will undercut Democratic criticism of Republican plans. For instance, the GOP has been pushing to move from describing the investment accounts as "private," preferring to use "personal," which they believe is less loaded politically. Similarly, Santorum said Friday he preferred to avoid calling costs associated with the creation of the accounts "transitional," favoring the use of "prepaying." A senior GOP Senate aide acknowledged that both of these semantic changes are part of the party's broader strategy to reframe the Social Security debate.

So there you have it, <$NoAd$> the president's State of the Union address is to be dedicated in large part to promulgating the new Social Security speech code already in evidence from Republicans over recent weeks.

The question is, how will this be reported?

And which news outlets will simply adopt the speech code either out of deference to the president or inherent simpletonian tendencies?

Pick your talking head, grab your notepad and get ready to jot.

In his Tuesday column, Paul Krugman hits the big question that shames every reporter who hasn't posed it to the president or whichever other privatizers they can finagle a minute with. It's as simple as this: the privatizers base their predictions about privatization on a 21st century of robust economic growth while they foretell Social Security's bleak future based on a 21st century of anemic economic growth -- a classic apples and oranges comparison which, if anyone were paying attention, would stop the whole debate in its tracks.

If you're not Tim Russert, read the column. If you are, hang your head in shame, buy an abacus and then go read Krugman.

This new article in the St. Petersburg Times chronicles the sorrows and sufferings of Florida's Republican congressional delegation. The article, somewhat surprisingly, places Rep. Bill Young (R) in the Conscience Caucus -- and we've followed their lead.

"I'm not going to support anything that makes Social Security subject to the stock market," said Young. "I have always been very careful to make a decision regardless of politics. I don't think a decision should be made based on whether you support the president or don't support the president."

The article goes on to note that even Rep. Clay Shaw (R) is now claiming he "wants Congress to find a way to add investment accounts without using Social Security," in the words of the Times reporter.

We remain skeptical that Shaw is so far off the reservation. But apparently this truly is a time of testing since Rep. Mike Bilirakis (R) declined even to comment for the story, thus placing himself into that distinguished fraternity of congressional worthies who pass on press attention.

The really rich prose in the Times piece, however, is reserved for Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R), who's keeping up her performance art routine as the fairer-sex Hamlet of west-central Florida, agonizing -- to paraphrase the Times -- over whether to 'tis nobler to serve the interests of thy constituents or "allegiance to the Republican agenda."

We keep hearing that Brown-Waite is stiffing constituents who are trying to find out where she stands on phasing out Social Security. So, as in the case of Montana, we have to ask: will Brown-Waite be travelling or appearing with the president in Florida?

Will she be endorsing his phase-out plan?

How about Reps. Harris, Shaw and Young?

[ed.note: Are you represented by Rep. Brown-Waite? Do you live in Florida's 5th congressional district? If so, drop us a line.]

As usually happens when a bit more hard data comes in and replaces pessimistic prognostication, the Social Security gotterdammerung gets pushed back even further. So says the CBO today. This time from 2018 to 2020, as the date that Social Security will begin drawing on its accumulated Trust Fund money.

It's a small nudge, but a telling one.

The program is in such a dire state of crisis, it would seem, that every time the bean counters run the numbers, its solvency seems assured even further into the future.

As in Iraq, you start to understand that there is a Social Security crisis. The longer President Bush waits, the more likely it is that even rosier numbers will come out on Social Security's long-term financing.

There really isn't a moment to lose.

Thursday is the day that President Bush is scheduled to head out to Montana to hold a few town meetings on phasing out Social Security. Expect the benighted bigs to focus on whether Bush can put the screws to Sen. Max Baucus (D). But you, who are among the TPM illuminati, know that the real issue is whether President Bush, coming right off his State of the Union address, can pry an endorsement loose from the state's sole congressman, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R).

Back on November 17th, Rep. Rehberg told the Great Falls Tribune that he was still pretty leery about President Bush's plan to phase out Social Security.

As reporter Mike Dennison put it ...

U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, Montana's sole House member and a Republican, says he's a long way from feeling comfortable about "privatizing" or allowing "personal accounts" with Social Security funds, as suggested by the president.

"I haven't seen anything I can support yet," he says.

But Rep. Rehberg's views on private accounts are fluid or perhaps best described as evolving, if not always in the same direction.

In a campaign trail debate in June 2000, for instance, he endorsed private accounts, telling the debate moderator, "We shouldn't be propping up a failed system."

In an earlier debate he asked rhetorically, "Why shouldn't we believe that somebody else could manage that money better than somebody in Washington, D.C.?"

Indeed, as we dug into this story we discovered that Rehberg was actually something of an early innovator in the Social Security speech code wars. Back in 2000 he repeatedly endorsed setting up private accounts within Social Security. But when opponent Nancy Keenan had the temerity to call this 'privatization,' Rehberg wouldn't stand for it.

Campaign manager Alan Mikkelsen said Rehberg simply wanted to allow workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in private investment accounts. "That's a far cry from privatization," Mikkelsen harrumphed to AP reporter Bob Anez.

In another press comment, Mikkelsen said Rehberg "doesn't want to privatize Social Security, but rather wants to explore the option of allowing future recipients to voluntarily invest a portion of their payroll taxes in individual savings accounts."

In any case, with all the sand kicked in the air, I wanted to see if there'd been any movement in the congressman's position over the last two months. When I rung him up this afternoon Rehberg spokesman Brad Keena told TPM that the congressman "does believe in a plan that will fix and reform" Social Security. He's just not ready to endorse the president's plan.

With regard to all the options on the table, Rehberg is "very open-minded," Keena repeated several times.

"Really, we haven't gotten this national debate into swing yet. We just got the information on [the president's Social Security plan] and he's begining to study it."

Presumably, by Thursday he'll have had a chance to study it more closely. And according to Sunday's piece in the Great Falls Tribune, Rehberg will be travelling with the president when he comes to the state.

So a pretty straightforward question for the media folk travelling with the president. Will Rehberg endorse, or no?

It's a mixed day for Mainers on the Social Security front.

On the basis of two articles in the Washington Post last week, we've elevated Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) into "Loud and Proud" status within the Conscience Caucus.

Here Snowe tells reporters she will oppose diversion of payroll tax revenue into private accounts. And earlier in the week the Post quoted her saying that she is "certainly not going to support diverting $2 trillion from Social Security into creating personal savings accounts."

On the other hand, Snowe's colleague, Sen. Susan Collins (R) doesn't seem to want to tell her constituents anything about her position on phasing out Social Security. In this letter to a TPM reader constituent, all we could divine from Collins' opaque doubletalk was that she's started using the last buzzword from the GOP Social Security speech code, referring to privatization as "modernization."

Wow. He's sure a downer.

We noted earlier that Rich Thau is the guy who helped the congressional Republicans put together the Social Security playbook they huddled with over the weekend. Here on the Third Millenium website is Thau's promotional video. Right after the screen flashes "the media turn to him for provocative commentary," at timestamp 3:35, Thau hits listeners with this doozy: “If we do nothing between now and the year 2012, we have two drastic options. The government can either cut benefits by about thirty percent or raise payroll taxes by thirty percent. Both are very unpleasant.”

Presumably he was working from the ridiculously pessimistic numbers of a few years ago, not the more up-to-date ridiculously pessimistic numbers. But doesn't the phase-out crowd say that the Social Security gotterdammerung happens in 2042 or 2052?