There are two important and telling articles on the Social Security debate in tomorrow's papers, one in the Times and another in the Post, both looking at two sides of the same coin: the collapse of the president's initial effort to phase out Social Security.
The Times piece, by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Robin Toner, confirms what you could glean if you've been reading the papers closely for the last week: the Republicans' townhall meetings on Social Security have ranged from so-so to terrible, with a few cases that were little short of riots. And they're coming back to DC with an even worse case of the phase-out-willies than they left with.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa tells the Times, in so many words, that unless the president can pull off a major turnaround in public opinion on this issue, it's over. He goes on to say: "I think 90 percent of the lifting is with the president. That process is starting, but it's starting very slow because too many Republicans and Democrats - how would you say it? - don't have the confidence that this issue is ever going to come up."
There you go right there. And Grassley has also inadvertantly touched on one of the reasons being score-keeper for the Conscience Caucus has become more difficult in recent days. Folks just don't want to say anything because they're not at all sure this thing's ever even going to come to a vote. And the last place you want to be if you're running next year is to have put your phase-out cards on the table -- to get all Loud & Proud about it, shall we say -- for no reason at all.
Which brings us to Sen. Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania, who's probably gotten knocked around this week about as bad as any middle-aged prizefighter in one too many fights for that final payday. Nothing's for sure, certainly. But a year and a half or so from now we may look back and say, this was the week this guy's goose got cooked. Because he has wrapped himself tight in the phase-out flag and I think it's going to turn out -- judged by the most objective measure: whether the thing goes down in flames -- that he's on the wrong side of the American people on this one, not to mention Pennsylvanians.
Now, from the Times move over to the piece in the Post which focuses on Republicans who are desperate for a deal to cut to get out of this mess and, well ... and the Democrats who love them. The dealmakers they talk about are Rep. Clay Shaw (R) of Florida and the Private Accounts Book Club man, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina. The writers of the Post piece -- John Harris and Jim VandeHei -- then go on to plumb the debate about how similar the present situation is to the health care debate from 1994.
The real bottom line in this article, however, is the crew of Dems eager to toss a life-line to the president just as the American people are turning hard against phase-out. Take Rep. Shaw's possible compromise deal, as described in the Post: Republicans give Dems some of their add-on accounts and in return the president agrees to phase-out less of Social Security than he initially wanted -- 2 percent of payroll rather than 4 percent.
Such a deal! Republicans at their town halls are getting treated like off-pitch singers on the Gong Show and the Democrats should cut a phase-out deal that gives the president what until a couple months ago was supposed to be all that he wanted (i.e., 2 percent of payroll)?
Whoever these Fainthearted Dems might be, please pass a law barring them from negotiating the price of their next automobile, right? I mean, maybe they think Enron stock is undervalued too and primed for a comeback.
As the Post describes the terms of a potential deal: "[M]ost of these compromises would involve Bush significantly scaling back his proposals for restructuring the popular retirement program. In exchange, he could still claim an incremental victory on what he has described as his core principles."
Of course, the real deal maker -- from what I can discern -- remains Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connectictu, the new Dean of the Senate's Fainthearted Faction. Sen. Carper comes in a close second. But I think Lieberman is the one who wants it most.
Along these lines, at the end of the week I heard from a number of TPM Readers who contacted Sen. Lieberman and were told in no uncertain terms that he does not support private accounts carved out of Social Security. All I can tell you is, listen carefully to the precise language his folks use because faint hearts make for meticulous wordsmiths. Or perhaps better, ask them this: Will Sen. Lieberman rule out a deal in which the payroll tax cap is raised and private accounts are funded only with that new payroll tax money? I doubt you'll get such a definitive answer.