Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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Did I miss something or did Conscience Caucus member Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) of Montana stay mum while squiring President Bush around Montana? Last we checked in with the congressman's office, his spokesman Brad Keena told us the congressman was "open-minded" about privatization.

I see here where Sen. Conrad Burns (R), who I guess isn't exactly what you'd call a centrist, said he was "intrigued" by Bush's privatization plan. "Social Security is still a very, very important part of the retirement of a lot of seniors in Montana," he went on to say. "So we'll listen and we'll look and we'll probe ... and see what is in it for the next generation."

Frankly, it hadn't even occurred to me that President Bush couldn't count on Burns as a phase-out man. But what about Rehberg? I can't see where he was quoted anywhere today in any paper even though he spent a good part of the day traveling at the center of the national news bubble and he's one of three members of the Montana congressional delegation. Maybe I'm missing some comment to a local radio or TV station. And if there was, I'd be much obliged if you'd let me know. But as near as I can tell, Rehberg didn't answer any questions about the president's plan at all. And I figure there would have been some press interest had he been inclined to do so.

Everyone's reporting, rightly, that Sen. Baucus (D) made clear he's not going to support President Bush on phasing out Social Security. But isn't the story here that President Bush just won this state with 59% of the vote in November. He went to campaign in the state to support his new Social Security privatization plan. And he couldn't get any members of the state's congressional delegation to endorse his plan -- and two of them are from his own party.

Oddly enough, in its reporting, CNN makes no mention of this -- another example of the dire need for a blog devoted entirely to documenting the decline and Foxification of this once proud network.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg (R - well sorta) of New York becomes first Associate Member of the Conscience Caucus.

From the Times ...

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg distanced himself from President Bush yesterday on the president's proposal to divert some Social Security taxes into private investment accounts, describing the plan, which was the central theme of Mr. Bush's State of the Union address, as excessively risky.

"I've never thought that privatizing Social Security made a lot of sense," said Mr. Bloomberg, who, like Mr. Bush, is a Republican. "I think what you'd see is that people would invest - some people would invest - unwisely."

He added, "These are not monies that people should be speculating with."
Someone needs <$NoAd$> to get Larry Kudlow to explain markets to this bozo.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R) Floridia billows in the wind. Says she: "There are a lot of unanswered questions and until I have the answers to them, I am still in the 'withholding judgment' category."

We've put her in the Conscience Caucus with FIW status.

A simple question that should be asked of Scott McClellan tomorrow and the president whenever the next opportunity arises ...

The Social Security Trust Fund now has accumulated roughly $1.8 trillion worth of US Treasury bonds. That total debt of the United States government is, if memory serves, just over $7 trillion. US Treasury bonds are owned by Americans, foreigners, individuals, pension funds, everybody under the sun. Most of the president's personal wealth appears to be tied up in them. They're universally considered to be the safest investment in the world. George W. Bush is the President of the United States. So the question is to him. Are the Treasury notes in the Social Security Trust Fund backed by the full faith and credit of the United States every bit as much as the bonds everyone else owns?

Everything the president is saying implies that they are not, that there is a very big question about whether those notes can or will ever be redeemed. So if they're not, the president should say so now.

Wouldn't it be something if the battle for Social Security was won on the Hill and on the hustings but lost in the newsrooms?

It could be happen. Actually, it might be happening right now.

I've got a list here of Republicans who went into the Conscience Caucus today. And with any luck I'll be able to post on most of them tonight. For a sampling, take a look at this AP article. But right now the White House and its Hill allies can see they're losing this debate because the essential fraudulence of their arguments are being exposed.

President Bush's top aides are getting cornered into admitting that private accounts won't do anything to improve the solvency of Social Security. Actually, it pushes it toward insolvency. But candor comes in small packages from these folks. So I guess be grateful. The claim that there was any 'crisis' tanked so quickly even the White House isn't making that argument anymore. And as the Post notes, most of the money you make in your private account goes back to the government. The White House is now furiously denying it. But we've got the transcript of the "senior administration official" saying just that to reporters.

Across the board, the debate is going badly because the whole plan is being revealed for what it is: not an effort to shore up or preserve Social Security but an attempt to phase the program out. You can even see various news outlets over the last 72 hours swaying back to 'private accounts' and 'privatization' in their discussions of President Bush's plan.

And for all these reasons the RNC and the White House are launching a furious assault against the major national news outlets trying to muscle them into shifting the tone and the assumptions of their coverage. The cable networks (at least the ones not already taking orders directly), the broadcast network news divisions, the major national dailies.

Part of it is the language, the speech code, but equally important is the basic issue of when the program will face actual difficulties. If the Bush plan calls for 40% benefit cuts those are cuts. But if the current benefit levels will in fact never be paid, then cuts aren't really cuts, right?

Look through the various transcripts of background briefings posted here and elsewhere to see examples of this.

Let's try an example. Let's say a hypothetical Bush plan cuts benefits by 40%. But what if the White House says that as things are going now recipients in a few decades will only get 50% of their benefits. Well then the Bush plan isn't really a 40% cut; it's more like a 10 percentage point increase in benefits. Or maybe there is no Trust Fund. The whole basis of the 1983 reform just doesn't exist. And the $1.8 trillion just doesn't need to be paid back.

You can see where this sort of stuff goes. And it's what's going on right now.

The issue isn't bias. It's just that the media is far more playable than it should be. And the Republicans just play them harder, more systematically, better.

Who's pushing back on the pro-Social Security side? Who's knocking down the new round of flimflam? Might be good if someone did.

Ring the bell!

The first member of the Conscience Caucus bites the dust.

It was only two short weeks ago that Rep. Sherry Boehlert, master of moderation from Upstate New York, was not only in the Caucus. He was on the brink of being Loud and Proud. He told his constituents: "I’ve never been a gambler … I don’t want to gamble with Social Security trust fund moneys. And so I am very, very skeptical of the so-called plans to privatize. And I think a disservice is being done to a great many Americans by sort of sounding the alarm that everything’s going to hell in a hand basket and we’re going to be broke by 2018. That simply is not so."

But look what a change has now been wrought.

Just moments after President Bush got done with his phase-out peroration, he posted this statement on his congressional website: "[President Bush's] message to Congress was clear – we must strengthen Social Security for all Americans – and I couldn’t agree more. As legislators it is our responsibility to debate all proposals from top to bottom. Americans have a right to a safe and secure retirement, and we will protect benefits for retirees and future retirees. It would be a major injustice to all Americans if we don’t act now - the worst thing we can do is nothing at all. Americans deserve the peace of mind of knowing they will receive full benefits for their retirement."

Oh My!

We're still poking around to see what prompted Sherry's change of heart. We just hope it wasn't W's helicopter love. However that may be, it looks like Sherry's a phase-out man after all, or at least for the moment. So he's outta the Conscience Caucus.

But as we'll discuss in posts later this evening, it turns out there's plenty more where he came from.

Uh-oh ... Looks like Rep. Jim McCrey (R) of Louisiana, chairman of the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, may be looking over the paperwork to join the Conscience Caucus. The AP says McCrery is now outlining "ideas similar to those supported by many Democrats and said he wants to discuss them with the Bush administration."

I guess that counts as a problem, right?

Maybe the president needs to put in a stop down in Lousiana too.