Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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Apropos of the previous entry, one TPM Reader (FW) asks whether Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) feels miffed that he has to go before real townhall meetings while President Bush gets to do his phase-out song and dance in front of the phony-baloney variety.

Another phase-out flame-out?

Give Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) of Arizona <$Ad$> credit. Despite pressure from their congressional leadership and the White House to hold townhall meetings on Social Security in their districts, most representatives and senators seem poised to spend next week's congressional recess hiding from constituents at the nearest undisclosed location. But Kolbe is holding meetings and real ones where anyone can get in.

But privatization doesn't seem to be going over too well.

Says local station KVOA: "More than once, Congressman Jim Kolbe had to pacify a deeply divided crowd Saturday at Pima Community College. Many blasted the Congressman and the social security Deputy Commissioner James Lockhart, with questions about their Social Security plan, especially on the idea of private accounts."

Two TPM Reader-Correspondents also reported in from the field and they seem to feel that the crowd wasn't so much divided as just spirited in their opposition to phase-out.

First, from JM ...

Went to a townhall meeting with Jim Kolbe and James Lockhart held in Tucson, AZ.

Kolbe did a brief sketch of his plan, and Lockhart went over some (in my opinion, and some others in the audience) definitely pro privatization scenarios. Then it was opened up for questions.

There were approximately 150 - 175 people in attendance, and based on the response to the questions asked I would say it was 90% against privatization. The 2 things that elicited the greatest positive response were 1) Moving the cap on SSA Tax wages up (with I would say a majority in favor of total elimination of the cap; 2) Repeal the Bush tax cuts.

I do not see any way that this can be spun by Mr. Kolbe to have shown support for his plan or any other privatization plan.

And a more detailed account from TPM Reader AP ...

Jim Kolbe brought James Lockhart to Tucson yesterday to flack for his SS bill. Mr. Kolbe began with a short speech, in which he noted that he had been working on "fixing" Social Security for ten years, and that the "problem" is based on "established actuarial data." He referred to his statements regarding the insolvency of Social Security as, "not a scare tactic but a mathematical fact." He continued to discuss Personal Accounts, but allowed that "PSA does not fix the problem." He then introduced Mr. Lockhart.

Mr. Lockhart delivered a PowerPoint presentation titled "Strengthening Social Security," which, of course, began with the assumption that there is a problem with Social Security. Needless to say, all his numbers were based on the Intermediate Assessment in the 2004 Trustees report, and did not at all address the Low-cost Assessment. He also had a "calculator" which he claimed had been developed in co-operation with AARP. Needless to say, this "calculator" showed that the only way to "save" Social Security is to institute "Personal Accounts."

I'd estimate that 200 people turned out - it was standing room only. The great majority of attendees appeared to be well over fifty years old. There was a strong, perhaps even vehement, bias against both Kolbe and Lockhart. Several times Kolbe called for people to allow Mr. Lockhart to continue his presentation, at one point testily exclaiming, "Folks, come on!" One of Mr. Lockhart's slides, a quote from President Bush's recent State of the Union speech, drew loud boo's and even raspberries from the crowd.

Once, the floor was given over to the audience, all but one of the speakers came out against private accounts. At one point, Mr. Kolbe requested a show of hands for several different "solutions." Elimination of the salary cap while simultaneously limiting benefits to current (indexed) levels received well over 50%, perhaps as much as 75%. Mr. Kolbe tried to suggest that this would be unfair to people such as Bill Gates and received: "Who cares?" and "So what?" in response.

I was called on near the end of the meeting, and attempted to challenge the whole notion that there is a problem. I noted that eight years ago, Mr. Kolbe was predicting bankruptcy for Social Security in 2027, and that now, eight years later, this date has slid out fifteen years. I further noted that the "crisis" is based on the fairly pessimistic numbers in the intermediate assessment, and that the Low Cost assessment shows solvency for 75 years. Mr. Lockhart quickly jumped in to contradict me, and Mr. Kolbe immediately called on another speaker. Even though I had refutations of Mr. Lockhart's counters, I was not allowed to present them. I'll apologize for not being a strong enough debater.

While the crowd was substantially opposed to their position, it seems they were successful in planting the notion that there is a "problem," if not a crisis. Further, on the only local news that carried the story that evening, the reporter barely covered the strong opposition, then gave both Kolbe and Lockhart time to make their points and concluded by stating that something needs to be done. So much for a liberal media.

We'll be curious to see how this was all reported in the local papers.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito's (R) message for (pro-Social Security) West Virginians about her Social Security townhall meetings next week: "I will describe the problem, but I'm not going to be advocating for any particular solution. If I go to all these town meetings and it's a stampede against reform, I'll have to factor that into my thinking."

Bamboozlepalooza flops in North Carolina too.

According to a fresh News & Observer poll, 46% of Tarheels "disapprove" or "strongly disapprove" of the president's position on Social Security, while a mere 31% either "approves" or "strongly approves."

(ed.note: The article notes that the poll oversampled women -- 60% of poll respondents but only 51% of the population. The poll also found, separate from the over-sampling, that women were markedly more skeptical of the Bush plan than men. 40% of male North Carolinians approved of the president's stance while 38% opposed. For women the numbers were flipped, 26% to 50%. A special note of thanks to valued TPM Reader DS for letting us know.)

With the developments of the last two days, we had to add a new classification to the Fainthearted Faction: "WMD".

"WMD", say the newly updated Faction bylaws, "denotes members who say they want to protect Social Security but really just 'Wanna Make a Deal'."

Stop the presses!

Call Richard Blumenthal!

Lieberman back in the Faction in a big, big way.

From this afternoon's Congress Daily ...

Lieberman 'Listening And Learning' About Private Accounts

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., is undecided about the concept of using payroll taxes to fund private Social Security accounts, bringing to three the known number of Senate Democrats who have yet to publicly rule out the idea. President Bush has made the accounts the centerpiece of his domestic agenda. But other than Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida, no congressional Democrats have formally signed on. While Lieberman has concerns about the idea, he is continuing to study it while hoping for more details on Social Security from the president, a Lieberman aide said today. "He's still in a listening and learning stage and is keeping an open mind, but he does have concerns about private accounts as carve-outs that would potentially undermine the guaranteed minimum benefit and worsen our fiscal health and debt load," a Lieberman aide said today.

It seems like only 2002 when Joe was saying ...

We understand Social Security's economic value and appreciate its moral value, and that we won't let it be diluted, dismantled or dissolved ... Simply put, Social Security privatization would take away the safety from the safety net, and turn the idea of a rainy day fund into a sink or swim proposition. If you don't choose wisely, you lose badly. And the government's response to bad luck would be to say, "tough luck."

That's what's so complicated about the whole moral values thing, at least as some folks practice <$Ad$> it. You can appreciate the moral value of something, but still want to learn more about phasing it out.

Maybe we can hear from all the Connecticut Dems who want their Senator to throw a vital lifeline to the forces of phase-out just as they're sinking in the waves.

Now, is this a flip-flop? Or is this where Lieberman's been throughout? I spoke to a Lieberman aide this afternoon and this person told me that "the senator hasn't changed his position, that he has serious concerns about private savings accounts that would jeopardize Social Security. But he remains open-minded about reforms that would strengthen the program."

That may be true. The truth is that Lieberman's statements over the last two months have been enough in the grey area that that may be right. But to me, at least, the issue isn't whether he's changed his position, it's what his position is right now.

Lieberman fans -- a group in which I have sometimes classed myself -- might tell you that Joe's just dancing now. And at the end of the day, he'll do the right thing, though to me that seems in doubt. But even if it's true, quite frankly, it doesn't matter. The damage he is doing, perhaps irreparable, is now.

Here's why.

As we've said from the start, the key to saving Social Security is Democratic unity. Look at those folks on the Conscience Caucus list. With a very few exceptions they are only there because there's no Democratic cover to make the vote. That's created time for the public to look and see what the president is trying to do. And the more they look, the more they turn against his plan. Throw in a few Democrats supporting phase-out and all but a handful of them will firm up and vote with the White House. Let's say every Dem for phase-out frees up three Republicans.

At the moment, too, the trend of the Social Security story is all running against the president. He can't get the seats filled in New Hampshire, the polls are bad, the Republicans in Congress are increasingly worried, scurrying for cover.

Give him Lieberman and suddenly the President is making headway in the Senate where the key vote will be made. A high-profile Democrat, like Lieberman, for phase-out would probably nail down three or four Senate Republicans for the president. In similar fashion, it would put an equal number of Senate Democrats back in play. One or two of those Dems sign on and you'll see them bring more with them. With a shift like that, suddenly phase-out is back in business and quite possibly even filibuster proof.

On the House side, with a Senate pal for Rep. Allen Boyd, you'd likely see a similar change.

Even if Lieberman eventually decides to keep his hands clean when phase-out comes to a vote, it might not matter since his individual vote probably wouldn't be needed. The damage would already be done.

A Senator re-enters the Fainthearted Faction ... And it ain't pretty. News to follow.

A quick and simple question some enterprising New Hampshire political reporter might put to Rep. Jeb Bradley (R).

The congressman says he flatly opposes 'privatization'. But the fine print now says that by 'privatization' he means a plan in which the "system is wholly administered through a private entity or corporation as opposed to public administration of the system that occurs today."

So the queston: Can Bradley point to any individual or institution that has proposed this policy? If not, is there any reason he has continued to prominently make this promise other than to fool his constituents into believing he opposes private accounts?

Yesterday, several New Hampshire newspapers ran stories reporting that Bradley opposed 'private accounts'. Presumably, that is because he managed to pull the wool over their eyes with his wordgame flimflam.

I'm ashamed! Ashamed, I tell you!

(Actually, just between you and me, I'm a bit ashamed.)

Just yesterday, we added Rep. Jeb Bradley (R) of New Hampshire to the Conscience Caucus even though the line that got him in was merely a claim to oppose "privatization."

How that got past me is a really good question. As we noted yesterday evening, no less a man than the President of the United States seemed to put Bradley in the Caucus. Every paper in New Hampshire from the Union Leader to the Concord Monitor to Foster's Daily Democrat fronted with Bradley's opposition to the president. We even rung up Bradley's spokesperson Stephanie DuBois and asked if his opposition to 'privatization' meant opposition to private accounts.

DuBois told me she'd have to discuss that with the congressman directly and that she'd try to get back to us, though we didn't hear back from her.

With so many red flags, you'd think we wouldn't have fallen for this one like a cub reporter the first day on the job.

But it seems that sometime after we talked to her, DuBois did find out and she gave the word to the Union Leader. And Bradley turns out to be anothe mumbojumbo man cut from the same cloth as Rep. Heather Wilson.

According to this morning's Union Leader ...

Bradley spokesman Stephanie DuBois yesterday said he continues to oppose privatization of Social Security, which he has defined as turning over administration of the system to the private sector. But he would consider personal accounts, which President Bush has been calling for, DuBois said.

In a new written statement, he says ...

Privatization of Social Security means the system is wholly administered through a private entity or corporation as opposed to public administration of the system that occurs today. We need to proceed in a deliberative manner that looks at the different options, which may include personal retirement accounts, that can enable our nation to address the looming problems facing Social Security.

So like so many other playbook gamers, when Bradley says he opposes 'privatization' he is using the word to refer to something that no one has ever proposed, making his statement not only meaningless but nothing more than a transparent attempt to bamboozle his constituents.

Needless to say, Bradley's short stay in the Caucus just came to an abrupt halt.