Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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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.

An update on the Democrats' 'Fainthearted Faction', those who voted against the Filner Amendment in 2001, which was widely seen as a proxy vote for support or opposition to replacing Social Security with private investment accounts.

A couple weeks ago, Rep. Tom Allen of Maine released a statement in which he said, inter alia, that "The proposed Social Security privatization will sink the nation further into the ocean of red ink that has already resulted from this President’s failed budget and tax policies. No amount of media ‘spin’ can disguise the brutal fiscal reality that this plan is a double-edged sword that wreaks deficit havoc on one side and Social Security chaos on the other."

Congressman Adam Schiff of California has released a statement in which he says: "The privatization of Social Security would be detrimental to the guarantee of a secure future for all of our seniors and our national economy. I have serious reservations about tying the Social Security funds into the stock market. Such accounts would expose participants to excessive market risk for an income source that has become so essential to many of the nation's elderly. Our nation has a three-tiered retirement system -- consisting of Social Security, private pensions, and personal investments. While we may want to undertake some "risk" in the latter two tiers, Social Security -- as the tier that provides a basic floor of protection -- should be more stable. It is true that steps need to be taken to strengthen the Social Security Trust Fund. First and foremost, we must continue to pay down the national debt to ensure that that the Trust Fund remains intact. However, the Administration's privatization proposal is estimated to require borrowing at least $1 trillion, which would be a fiscally irresponsible decision. Instead, to protect the Trust Fund, we must prohibit the transfer of any funds to cover future tax cuts or new spending programs."

Staffers for congressman Dennis Moore of Kansas have been telling TPM constituent-readers who've called his office in no uncertain terms that he opposes replacing all or part of Social Security with private accounts and we received a letter from him today in which he writes that "In the 109th Congress, we will attempt to address the challenges facing Social Security, but I cannot stress enough the importance of strengthening the current system instead of dismantling it. As such, I am opposed to any efforts to privatize the current Social Security system." He also notes his support for taking Social Security "off-budget" thus preventing the use of the Social Security surpluses to mask general revenue deficits. Finally, he says -- in reference to the Filner Amendment -- that "while I applaud the Commission for helping to initiate a debate on how best to improve the Social Security system, let me assure you that I will continue to oppose any plan that would jeopardize the benefits of hardworking Americans through investment in individual accounts."

Finally, Congressman Adam Smith of Washington, from what we can glean from TPM constituent-readers who've contacted his office and this article he wrote on December 17th, is very much keeping his options open on private accounts.

So, that all means that we're striking Reps. Allen, Moore and Schiff from the Fainthearted Faction and leaving Congressman Smith definitely in.

That takes the number of members of the Fainthearted Faction down to ten. But we also have a new member joinging the Faction, Congressman Harold Ford of Tennessee, who brings the number back to eleven. We're adding Rep. Ford to the list because of an exchange a reader sent us between Rep. Ford and Mort Kondracke at a panel meeting on capitol hill last March sponsored by Centrists.Org, The Concord Coalition, The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget at the New America Foundation, and The Alliance for Worker Retirement Security.

When Kondracke asked Ford whether he could support Sen. Lindsey Graham's private accounts bill (Graham was the other member of Congress on the panel), Ford responded ...

Yes, I would, provided we could pay for the transition costs without running up bigger deficits. I’m not an expert on all the details, but I think his bill has good anti-poverty protections, and matching funds for lower-income workers. The personal accounts are progressive, which is good. And in the long run, it keeps Social Security costs down to about where they are now, which we can afford. In this budget environment, however, it will be very hard to pay for the transition costs of the accounts.

MORT KONDRACKE. Is there a caucus for entitlement reform among Democrats in the House? Realistically, how many House Democrats do you think would be interested in discussing Social Security reform and personal accounts?

REPRESENTATIVE FORD. I think there is a group who would be willing to work constructively. Maybe 50 or 60 members. Certainly, Charlie Stenholm has been an extraordinary leader on this. Charlie has been explaining this issue to voters for many years, and he is a very influential leader on budgets and entitlements.

So Congressman Ford enters the Faction. And that leaves us with the following updated list for the Fainthearted Faction ...

Tom Allen
Marion Berry
Allen Boyd
Robert "Bud" Cramer
Harold Ford
Ron Kind
Dennis Moore
James Moran
Collin Peterson
Adam Schiff
Ike Skelton
Adam Smith
John Tanner
Gene Taylor

More soon on our Social Security 'where do they stand' database.

[ed.note: Thanks to TPM reader JH for the tip on Rep. Ford. The linked post contains more details on Ford.]

This article "special to The Washington Post" discusses a supposed rise in the incidence of vandalism of Nativity scenes and other Christmas displays and ponders whether it is the result of an alleged rise in "Christian-bashing."

As nearly as I can tell, however, the only evidence of a rise noted in the piece comes from William Donohue, an extremist and a gamer, who is the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, and who we last saw complaining that "Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular."

Giuliani-Kerik LLC to be renamed Giuliani Security & Safety. Kerik "to take some time off to focus on my family."

In this post Kevin Drum wades into the online debate about why new poll numbers out yesterday show public approval of the Iraq war down substantial since election day. He notes that fellow blogger David Adesnik reacted in puzzlement to these new numbers ...

I have to admit I'm somewhat puzzled by the numbers. Why were the American public so much more confident [in] Bush on election day? The media have generally presented the post-election battle in Fallujah as victory for our side....Steve Sturm's take on all of this is that America supported the first Iraq war (to get rid of Saddam's WMDs) but not the second (to promote democracy in Iraq).

Kevin's answer, which I think is certainly correct, <$Ad$>is that there's no real mystery. With a few bumps and wiggles along the way, public support both the conduct of the war and the very idea of going to war has basically been heading south from the day the war ended. "Conservatives seem to think that Americans like wars.," writes Kevin, "They don't. They like winning wars. As it becomes ever clearer that Bush doesn't have a winning strategy in Iraq, support continues to drop. It's pretty easy to understand."

But I have another explanation, one that I think is complementary to Kevin's, but adds something to it.

During the election, I always thought that the dynamics of the campaign were providing what we might call an artificial floor for support for the war -- both at the level of its management and the whole idea of going to war in the first place.

Here's what I mean -- it comes down to an issue of cognitive dissonance.

The dead-even political polarization of America remains the defining fact of our politics. Close to 50% of Americans were dead set on voting for President Bush almost no matter what. Or they were dead set on voting against John Kerry. For our purposes, it's the same difference.

I think that many Bush supporters simply couldn't take stock of the full measure of the screw-up in Iraq during the election because doing so would have conflicted their support for President Bush. Iraq and the war on terror so defined this election that support for the war and the president who led us into it simply couldn't be pried apart.

Perhaps it wasn't so internalized. During the slugfest of the campaign supporting Bush just meant supporting the war and this is what people told pollsters when they were asked, because one question was almost a proxy for the other.

You can even do a thought experiment by imagining how many conservatives during election season would have been so staunch in their support for the war if it were being fought under a President Gore or a President Clinton. The question all but answers itself.

In any case, I think what has happened is that the end of the campaign season has departisanized the war -- at least to a measurable extent -- and folks who were emotionally and intellectually committed to reelecting the president (just as there were people on the other side with similar commitments) are now freer to see the situation in Iraq a bit more on its own terms.

An update on yesterday's discussion of the ABC/WaPo poll on Social Security -- and this one's a pretty big deal.

Last night I wrote that the poll showed that 53% of respondents favored private accounts but that number dropped to 46% (with 47% opposed) when costs of up to $2 trillion were added to the equation.

But it seems that's incorrect and the real finding was far more favorable.

I went back and looked at what appears to be a revised version of the Post story I referenced yesterday to see exactly what they said. But even the revised version states: "The president also has at least general support from 53 percent of the public for the concept of letting people control some of their contributions to invest in the market ... Support dropped to an even split when people were told that the cost of the transition to a new program could reach $2 trillion over time ..."

The original version of the article, I believe, provided the specific numbers, but this reference to an "even split" is clearly a reference to the numbers falling to 46% for, 47% against. Or at least I can't see any other way of interpreting it.

All I can figure is that the authors of the piece weren't clear on what the numbers actually said. (I don't say that lightly; they're both solid reporters. But I don't see any other way to interpret how they characterize the data.) This is clear in ABC's compilation of the data; and it's noted in their write-up of the poll as well. Indeed, if you look at the section of the Post's complete poll data which references this question, you'll see quite clearly that this question was "asked [only] of those who support a stock market option."

That means that it's not 46% of respondents who still support private accounts but only 46% of the originally-private-account-supporting 53%. Or, in other words, just under 25% of respondents support Bush's plan once they know the costs and an overwhelming 69% oppose it.

That's a pretty big difference.

[ed. note: A special thanks to readers JD and SC for flagging my attention to this point.]