Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I'm gonna turn over the keys to this operation for a couple days. So this is a sign-off post. But before I go, a few points.

First off, every sign I see tells me that Sen. Lieberman is looking to cut a deal of some sort with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina and thus with the White House. It would be a kinder, gentler phase-out. But phase-out just the same.

Individually, Lieberman's vote isn't that consequential. At present I don't think the White House could get majority votes for a phase-out bill in either chamber. But give the president and the congressional leadership that bipartisan cover they've been hunting for and things could change very, very quickly. Lieberman would probably put a few more Senate Dems in play and also firm up the whole Republican caucus. Same thing in the House.

As I said, I think the probable deal involves raising the cap and using those new funds for private accounts, thus getting around the idea that it's a 'carve-out'. Of course, you can imagine other permutations. And there's no limit to the policy creativity of a truly faint heart. Whether such a compromise would ever fly or not is another question. But I suspect it's largely beside the point because once you're to that point you're into a process of legislative horse-trading and conference committees. And whether or not some people on the hill realize it, the Republicans control both houses of congress and the White House. So at that point they can pretty much do what they want.

You do have to wonder -- really, really wonder -- about the roots of the urge to split the difference on phase-out seeing as the public is against it and turning more against with time. The policy and the politics are both lined up on one side of the ledger on this one. This isn't about garnering lots of press as the dealmaker, invites to the chat shows or the yearned-for plaudits of an increasingly right-leaning dinner-party centrism. And it shouldn't be about angling for mentions in the Post's increasingly fatuous Social Security editorials. This is about saving Social Security and now about preserving it for a long time to come.

So, Lieberman's the weakpoint in the wall against Social Security phase-out. Sen. Carper too -- but, my gut tells me, not as much as Joe. So if there's a time to pull out all the stops to save Social Security, to mobilize pressure and exert coercive persuasion, now's the time and Lieberman's the guy.

If anything, the press coverage has understated just had badly the Republicans got hammered out in those townhalls last week. So I'm going to be really curious to see if there are any more shake-ups in the Conscience Caucus as a result. I've gotten a partial transcript of some of the stuff Rep. Chris Chocola (R) of Indiana said at his townhall meeting back in South Bend. So there's more of his funny-business to be discussed. Even more though, watch for signs of lots of them wanting to cut a deal and get out.

So, that's it for me for now. I'm going to be turning over the keys to Ed Kilgore of NewDonkey.com and the Democratic Leadership Council. (And for those of you who are most accustomed to thinking of the DLC as a topic in theodicy, be nice.) Ed's a good friend. I'm a big fan of his site. And he's an extremely shrewd observer of American politics in all its facets, both high and low. I'm looking forward to reading what he has to say.

I'm a big fan of Sen. Joe Biden (D) of Delaware. But I usually figure him for a foreign policy and judiciary guy, rather than a big hitter on domestic policy. But take a look at his appearance today with Sen. Santorum (R) on Meet The Press (which you can see here and read here).

He hits all the key points. Like: "No matter how you cut it, this real debate on personal accounts is about the legitimacy of Social Security; it's not about the solvency of Social Security."

Yes, just so.

Or this: "And the presumption that Social Security can't meet its obligations rests on the notion that the federal government will default, something it's never done in 220 years, on an obligation, on Treasury notes, IOUs, just like the IOUs Japan has and other countries have in terms of buying our Treasury bonds. And so I don't think we'll default."

So true!

It was a minor masterpiece of counter-bamboozlism.

The Count, Rep. Chris Chocola (R) of Indiana, just won't quit.

He continues to deny that he ever supported privatization, let alone privatizing all of Social Security. Chocola claims that anyone who says this is either making it up or distorting his words.

So just for the record let's put down, word for word, what he told an editorial board meeting with the Elkhart Truth back in October 2000 ...

"Bush's plan of individual investment of 2 percent of the money is a start. Eventually, I'd like to see the entire system privatized. It's not a 'risky scheme.' There will be a series of investment options for people, professionally managed. If one isn't performing for you, you can change every year. We're not going to let people invest all of their money in Yahoo!

People will be smart enough to understand their risk level. I believe people can make good decisions, and I know they ask really good questions before they make decisions. Will somebody screw it up? No question. But the government is screwing up the whole thing right now.

The whole thing is optional, and it's good for a couple of reasons. One, it's your money and nobody can touch it. It doesn't end up being borrowed by the federal government to pay off other things. Two, it gives you a much better return than you'd ever get out of Social Security. Right now, younger people are getting a negative return on their money.

The stock market has performed at 8 percent return over the past 70 years - that's through wars and depression. If you give people the opportunity, they'll build their self reliance and self respect because they'll be making a direct impact on their lives."

Less than a <$Ad$>month later, on the eve of the election, as his campaign started to swirl down the tubes, Chocola said that claims that he supported a total privatization of Social Security were false: "There is no one proposing, including me, a plan of total privatization."

When he ran again in 2002 he said: "I do not support the privatization of Social Security."

Yesterday at his townhall meeting, according to the South Bend Tribune, he claimed that "allowing people to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into personal accounts is at least one part of the final solution on Social Security."

Final solution? How about, is that your final answer?

Longview (Texas) News-Journal, Feb. 26th: "Former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey said Friday that Social Security should be phased out rather than saved."

So there it is. Not only does Armey think Social Security should be "phased out", he believes, as he is quoted as saying in the article, that the eventual effect of the Bush plan will be phase-out.

(Read the whole article, which gives the context, but the exact quote in which he used this phase is when he says that: "I think if you leave people free to choose, it will be phased out by competition." This of course is another way of saying that if you let people pull their payroll taxes out of Social Security it will eventually cripple the program.)

Now, in case folks need a precise flow-chart of how to work this, Dick Armey is the head of FreedomWorks. And FreedomWorks is one of the three or four major groups funding and organizing the push for President Bush's privatization plan.

So the head of one of the main groups funding the PR blitz for President Bush's privatization plan says Social Security should be "phased out" and that the eventual effect of the Bush plan will be phase out.

And one other thing, can we get a video or transcript of this talk?

(ed.note: Thanks to this fellow for letting me know about this wonderful article.)

We hear from our observers <$NoAd$>on the scene that Rep. Chris Chocola's (R) meeting in South Bend last night was a bit more raucous than this article in the South Bend Tribune lets on. And they say it was pretty raucous.

In an interview later with the Tribune, Chocola showed again that if patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel (a la Dr. Johnson), Moveon.org is the last excuse of House Republicans who get a shellacking at their Social Security townhall events. Chocola claimed that Moveon TV ads from a couple weeks ago "may have played a role in the demeanor of the South Bend session."

(For a general overview of the mood on Social Security in the Indiana meetings -- including the Count's rough ride -- see this piece in today's Indianapolis Star.)

We were particularly interested in Chocola's response to a question about raising the cap on the payroll tax. A Notre Dame professor named Marty Wolfson cited what appears to have been the SSA's new actuarial memo (or perhaps an earlier iteration of it), which shows that eliminating the payroll tax cap would keep Social Security solvent through 2079 and beyond. Chocola replied that "if it was that easy, it would have been done already" and then went on to say that it wouldn't make any difference anyway since the Trust Fund doesn't really exist.

Then, according to the Tribune, Chocola attempted what can only be called a bravura performance in misunderstanding cause and effect. Chocola argued, according to Tribune reporter James Wensits, that "if the government had not borrowed the money from Social Security it would have borrowed it elsewhere, and the money would still have been spent."

Now, if Chocola really said this, it's one of those statements that gets so many things wrong or upside down that it's hard to know where to begin. But let's at least start by noting that the federal government does not have to run big annual deficits that make it harder than it need be to make good on future obligations to Social Security. Second, Chocola either doesn't grasp or ignores the main point. Had the money not been borrowed from Social Security, the issue is not that it would still have been spent. The issue is that had the money been borrowed from anywhere else but Social Security we wouldn't even be hearing a peep about the idea of not paying it back.

We'll have more on the Count later -- including more about why he just can't admit that only four years ago he supported privatization of the entire Social Security program.

(ed.note: A special note of thanks to our South Bend correspondent DR.)

Phase-out "hits a wall" in Texas, reports the Houston Chronicle. Rep. DeLay says he's "very disappointed" that only a third of GOP reps. held meetings in their districts last week.

A tough night for the Count in South Bend?

Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida phones in to the Associate Editor of The St. Augustine Record from his phase-out bunker.

Mica, who is holding no meetings on Social Security this week or apparently even in his district this week, tells Margo Pope that "the details are sketchy," and he'll wait for more before taking a position. As for private accounts, said Mica from his undisclosed location, "I am concerned about making any investments (of Social Security) funds in speculative funds."

Apparently he was even more concerned two years ago when he responded to an AARP questionnaire by pledging: "I do not support replacing any part of the current Social Security system with individual accounts.”

Mica's district has the 12th highest numbers of retirees of any in the country and he wouldn't even show his face in his district last week.

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.