Josh Marshall

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Articles by Josh

Think of this as a memo to Democrats in the House and the Senate. (Actually -- just between us -- that's exactly what it is.)

Dear Messrs. Daschle, Gephardt, et. al.:

This is important. You are rapidly losing ground in the battle to frame the debate over tax cuts. The approach you're now pursuing utterly ignores the essential elements of the politics of taxation. Bill Clinton had an intuitive understanding of this. But sometimes it seems like he was the only one. Clinton understood that you can never run against tax cuts, per se. NEVER. And, really, why should anyone ever be able to run against tax cuts? All other things being equal, shouldn't we all want everyone's taxes to be as low as possible?

But that's the point: all other things aren't equal. It's tax cuts or paying down the debt or saving Social Security or instituting a prescription drug benefit and so on. Clinton understood this, and acted accordingly. And he added the kicker: which is better? Prescription drugs for your mother and grandmother, or a tax cut for the wealthy who are making out great already?

Thus far Democrats have failed utterly to approach the matter in this way.

But President Bush presented Democrats with a golden opportunity yesterday when he introduced his own pinched version of a Prescription Drug Benefit Plan (PDBP). This opened up a crucial point of vulnerability. The Bush plan is not only unpopular with the public - something ably demonstrated during the late presidential campaign, but also unpopular among politicians in congress, for a host of sometimes contradictory reasons. That provides a very big opening.

You must aggressively engage the president on PDBP. It is a golden opportunity to get off your backs and fundamentally reorder the legislative terrain of the 107th congress.

All the other shenanigans you're up to pale in comparison.

What is accomplished by pushing PDBP now and not later?

Prescription drugs is not a two-fer or a three-fer, it's a four-fer.

1. It's just good public policy. A prescription drug benefit under Medicare would bring one of America's most successful social programs into the 21st century by taking account of the increasing percentage of Medical costs taken up by prescription drugs.

2. It would outflank Bush on tax cuts. The president has introduced his winnowed-down version of a prescription drug benefit. Any Democratic alternative will be more generous, more popular, and - yes - more expensive. But that's an advantage, not a liability. The White House will charge that the Democratic plan costs too much. At which point Democrats should respond: if it costs too much that's only because the president's tax cuts are so large. PDBP opens up a second front in the battle over fiscal policy. This moves the debate from an abstract discussion of taxes (which is inherently unfriendly to Democrats) to one of priorities (which is inherently unfriendly to Republicans.)

3. It will stymie and possibly derail efforts to reform Medicare along the lines of the Breaux-Thomas Medicare Reform Commission (the recommendations of which would convert Medicare into a voucher program run largely by HMOs).

4. It will throw the president off his legislative schedule and inflict the first real political damage on the new administration by exposing its political priorities as ones most Americans do not share.

There's really no time to waste.

P.S. Next post we return to the fun stuff.

Good Morning and welcome to the first Talking Points report from Davos, Switzerland and the World Economic Forum.

I arrived last night and I must admit that the crisp Swiss air does add an extra charge to the heady and far-reaching discussions we're all having here. I'm planning on meeting up with Tom Friedman for lunch today and hopefully also reconnecting with some friends from the British Labour Party who I haven't had a chance to speak with since the end of our presidential election. I'm also going to be attending a seminar on bridging the global digital divide, especially in sub-arctic regions where the expansion of the Internet will apparently be a great boon for economic development. Much talk here of course about the American economy and whether the new American administration will retreat toward isolation or return to the embrace of …

Okay. Look. Fine. Whatever. I'm not in Davos, Switzerland. I'm in my Du Pont Circle apartment in Washington, DC. But obviously everyone else who is anyone is in Davos. But for me - no invite. Despite my heroic efforts exposing the Bushies' attempt to smear the out-going administration with trumped up stories of inauguration day vandalism (contained in this article in Slate) I'm clearly not a big enough player to go to the international shindig' in the Alps.

But who cares about that nonsense!

Look. The Dems have not had a good week. But if they're shrewd their big opportunity just opened up for them. What is it? Easy. PRESCRIPTION DRUGS. It's a three-fer. No. Make that a four-fer. 1. Good policy. 2. Outflanks Bush's rapidly growing momentum on taxes. 3. Stymies those who support privatizing Medicare and turning it over to HMOs. 4. Draws the first real political blood from the new administration.

What about Ashcroft?    &%$# Ashcroft! This is the real deal. That is, if the Dems know to seize the opportunity.

Well, since I grew up in California let me say a few quick words about the crazy California energy crisis. There is a growing chorus of conservative columnists who say that the crisis isn't the result of too much deregulation but too little. (You know who they are!) It's an argument as foolish as it is elegant.

Several California power companies face looming bankruptcy because the cost of the electricity they buy was deregulated but the prices they are allowed to sell at remained capped. So their prices skyrocketed but their revenues remained flat because they couldn't raise their rates.

Now along come the gaggle of deregulation wiseacres who say: Wait a minute. Of course this isn't working! You can't half-way deregulate. You have to do it or not do it. Deregulate all the prices or none. If you hadn't left in the caps on utility rates, prices would has risen, the whole system would have stabilized, and these utilities wouldn't be on the brink of going under and dragging the whole state with them.

This is true, of course. But assertions can be true, and irrelevant, and even moronic all at the same time. And this one certainly qualifies.

You don't get consumers to vote for deregulation by telling them their prices will go up. You entice them by telling them their prices will go down. And thus to make sure they're not being hoodwinked voters will often require some guarantees. And thus the caps.

If rates were going to skyrocket, why do it in the first place?

Now the dereg floggers will argue that once all the magic of the market got going, incentives would kick in, new production would come on line, and prices would just fall and fall and fall.

Don't bet on it.

Lots of my lefty friends can't get the logic of markets through their skulls and refuse to see the benefits of market forces in many aspects of economic life. Phones are the key example, of course. But the applicability of market forces to all aspects of economic life is a classic bogey for high-IQ simpletons whose minds are apparently not big enough for more than one good idea.

Phones are one thing; electricity is different. Why is electricity different? More on that later.

No inside info. Just a hunch. Between 40 and 44 Democrats vote against John Ashcroft for Attorney General. But a critical portion of that number refuses to support a filibuster (Daschle, Leahy, So after several days of slashing and acrimonious debate, Ashcroft is confirmed.

P.S. Could pushing still make a difference? Yup.

YES! Finally, Andrew Sullivan has risen to my provocations and lambasted me on his web site. Finally! And just when I was thinking of ditching this whole Talking Points racket!

As regular Talking Points readers will remember, I recently issued a very gentle and genteel diatribe against the increasingly shrill and rightward lurch of Sullivan's recent writings about Al Gore, George W. Bush and the Florida recount. But this wasn't about that.

Yesterday on his site Sullivan was dishing out DC's recent conventional wisdom which says that the final rush of Clinton mini-scandals has pushed even the Clintons' most dogged defenders past the point of forgiveness. He said …

I have yet to meet a single Democrat who isn't sickened to his stomach by the excrescence of Clinton's pardons, and by the puerile vandalism of the White House in the last hours of the old regime. Maybe they finally, finally get what some of us have been banging on about for years. [itals added]
Now today Sullivan has this post …
DUMB BUT NOT DISGUSTING: The American Prospect's Joshua Micah Marshall, a rising star on the intellectual Left, emails to say he doesn't find the use of presidential pardons as political pay-back/fund-raising tool to be beyond the pale. Just dumb - not disgusting. Dumb, presumably, because the Clintons didn't get away with it! And this is the face of the idealistic Left these days. I emailed Josh to ask him what exactly would evoke disgust in him. He said, cryptically, "something disgusting." Welfare reform? Prayer in schools? A tax cut? - 1/27/2001 02:23:59 PM
First let's stipulate to a few points. Yeah, I really liked the "rising star" line. No question.

But 'of the Left'? Please! As those who know me know, I'm anything but 'of the Left.' And it's caused me no end of professional grief. But that's another story.

Back to the post.

So basically what I said was that the pardon wasn't disgusting just dumb - because they got caught.

Wow. I do sound pretty bad, don't I? But is that really what I said? That it wasn't disgusting, just dumb? That the only problem was that they got caught? Really?

But, hey, why argue? Let's go the tapes!

Exhibit 1:

Date: 9:28 PM EST, 1/26/01
To: Andrew Sullivan
From: Joshua Micah Marshall

not quite universal. even i'm bummed by the two stories. but no disgust.

Exhibit 2:

Date: 12:36 AM EST, 1/27/01
To: Joshua Micah Marshall
From: Andrew Sullivan
Subject: Re:

what would it take for you to feel disgust?

Exhibit 3:

Date: 12:39 AM EST, 1/27/01
To: Andrew Sullivan
From: Joshua Micah Marshall
Subject: Re:

something disgusting

At 12:36 AM 1/27/01 -0500, you wrote:
what would it take for you to feel disgust?

End of exhibits

First of all, let me stipulate to one point: I thought my rejoinder was pretty damn clever. You know, concise, punchy, tautological yet enigmatic, understated but in-your-face. You'd think an Englishman would like it! But I guess not. Anyway, back to our story.

I thought conservatives were supposed to be strict textualists! Don't you think our friend Andrew maybe embroidered what I said just a smidgen for poetic/dramatic effect? Just a wee-bit maybe? I kinda think so. But I'll let you be the judge.

(Note: Friends and readers should rest assured I would never publish their email without their permission. But, in this case, I think Andrew's selective publication of my email gives me license.)

So what do I think of these "two stories"? Well, as I've noted in posts below, the vandalism story is quickly shaping up to be pretty much bogus. And, I would hope, an embarrassment for everyone who fell for a heap for unsubstantiated and self-serving leaks from the Bushies. As for the Marc Rich pardon, well that looks pretty bad to me. But disgusted? Sick to my stomach? No, not really. I can be disappointed in someone I like and still be free of digestive difficulties.

Anyway, we're not so dissimilar, are we Andrew? Isn't the real difference that I feel disappointment in someone I like and you feel vindication in the misdeeds of someone you hate? Isn't the difference purely situational?

But, Andrew, let's push all this textual analysis mumbo-jumbo aside. Let's debate Clintonism and Clinton!

You'll be ranting on about thin words like shabbiness and tawdriness. And I'll be saying, who gives a #&@% and going on with arguments like the one I made here. You'll be splenetic and over-heated and I'll be jocular and whimsical. Trust me, it'll be great. First of all, I'll get all sorts of residual traffic from your site since my site is small-time and feeble and your site … well, your site is huge because you get to go plug it on shows like Nightline and that weird show Jeff Greenfield does on CNN.

And, on top of that, this might develop into a genuine 'feud' or 'dispute' between writers. Yes, yes, yes, I know you're big-time and I'm small-time. But that's okay. This could help me become big-time. Trust me, it'll work. I'm starting to feel like Edmund Wilson or Walter Lippman or Norman Mailer already!

P.S. Are those emails you posted really authentic? You bet they are. All I did was take out the addresses.

P.P.S. Are you really upset about Sullivan's post? No, of course not. Actually I appreciated it. I was honored. So why the long response? Hey, that's what you do on these personal political web sites! It's all whimsy, all drama. Sullivan's been very kind to me. I'm still hoping he comes to my birthday party next month.

Now the backtracking begins.

A few Clintonites, back from weeks in the Bahamas or drowning their sorrows in gin or whatever, have stepped forward to ask the White House's new occupants to put up or shut up. And there seems to be more shutting up than putting up.

Read the Post and CNN stories to get the details. But basically it seems like all we're talking about is removal of 'w's from the keyboards of some computers by a few of Al Gore's twenty-something staffers and the posting of a few gag signs like "The Office of Strategerie."

As the Post quoted some Clinton staffers as saying:

Former West Wing officials said they agreed that these pranks, which they attributed primarily to aides to former vice president Al Gore, were in questionable taste. But they said these lapses were a far cry from property destruction and an exception to the efforts the Clinton team generally made for a smooth transition.
Now let me try out my own alternative narrative of this story and do let me know if I'm far off the mark …

PART I: New administration comes into office and finds a some isolated gags and pranks left for them by the departing administration - a few gag signs, removal of some 'w's from keyboards. They take these and systematically exaggerate or fabricate all manner of other alleged infractions including widespread cutting of utility wires, leaving of pornographic material, lewd graffiti on White House office walls, theft of miscellaneous property, over-turned desks, vandalism of miscellaneous office property by gluing things shut, 'trashing' of offices, leaving of computer viruses on White House computers, and so on.

PART II: These stories are then aggressively leaked to the press by the new occupants of the White House (including senior staffers in the new administration) - all on a non-attribution basis. The White House press secretary elliptically confirms most of the story but couches it in self-serving statements to the effect that the new president wants to look to the future and not the past and will not support any prosecutions for the alleged offenses.

PART III: The whole scenario rather transparently fits into the new administration's spin about the difference between it and the former administration - with lush evocations of pettiness, immaturity, obscenity, and lawlessness. But, surprisingly, the city's porcine political press takes the ball and runs with it, without forcing any of the leakers to speak on the record, provide systematic documentation of the alleged infractions, or even provide physical evidence to document the offenses.

PART IV: Story begins to hemorrhage and then collapse for lack of evidence. Press moves on to next story. No questions asked.

Am I missing something here?

I asked before why the DC political press let's itself get led around by the nose like this. But, honestly, I already know.

As long as the Bushies are leaking so much about the trashing of the White House, why no pictures? Why no specific cataloguing of what was done? Why no one on the record with specifics? Isn't this a put up or shut up type situation?

They can't exactly say they don't want to dwell on the past since they're dwelling on it plenty with every reporter and right-wing hack in town.

When I first heard these stories about pranks and defacements at the White House from departing Clintonites, I confess, I felt a touch embarrassed. But if the Bushies are so keen on looking forward and not dwelling on the past, then why are they leaking about this to the media so profusely?

Karl Rove apparently leaked to various reporters that he had discovered a "hidden vanity mirror" in a bookcase in his new office - the office previously occupied by Hillary Clinton.

Isn't this a bit transparent? Lemme guess tomorrow's leak: sources close to Rove report he found secret bitch supplies apparently used by the former First Lady.

Come on! Isn't news about Karl Rove being an $%#hole news about Karl Rove, and not the former First Lady?

And it's very high-minded of the Bushies not to "prosecute" anyone for leaving cartoon pictures of George W. in printer trays. Please!

How does the political press get led around by the nose like this?

Sad to say it, but the Democrats seem to be losing the tactical battle to frame the tax cut debate. And there's simply no reason for it. Alan Greenspan's testimony yesterday is a setback. But it needn't have been and still needn't be a major one.

Every news story over the last month which points to support for a tax cut is chalked up as a victory for the president. Dick Gephardt says he's for a tax cut; so that's a victory for Bush. Alan Greenspan says he supports a major tax cut; so that's a victory for Bush.

But wait. Al Gore ran on a platform which supported a major tax cut. Not a megalithic one like Bush's. But one in the neighborhood of $500 billion. And for anyone who knows jack about economics, Gore's tax cut would have a greater short-to-medium term impact on the economy than Bush's since Gore's is focused on people who tend to spend the extra money rather than save it. (Whether navigating recessions is better done through monetary or fiscal policy is another matter entirely).

So the Republicans aren't the only ones supporting a tax cut. And, yes, you can find Dems who make these arguments. But that's just not how it's playing in the press. So the Dems tax cut talk is just trees falling in the forest.

Another point. As president Clinton ably demonstrated, you can never run against tax cuts per se. Never. You can make political arguments about who benefits from them. Or you can make arguments about priorities - tax cuts versus 'saving social security' or paying down the debt, etc. And why shouldn't that be so? All other things being equal, shouldn't we all be for everyone's taxes being as low as possible? I think we should.

But that's the point. All other things aren't equal. Too often Democrats get tangled up in abstract arguments about equity or spending qua spending. This will choke off all possibilities for activist government, etc. etc. etc. (Traditional libs will complain most about losing this tax cut debate. But they're actually most responsible for the problem.)

The conventional wisdom seems to dictate now that the public just isn't interested in major new government spending and thus - with the debt pay-off argument receding - the Dems have no available arguments at their disposal.

But this is foolish. With Bush arguing that Social Security and Medicare need to be reformed because baby-boomers are going to bankrupt the programs, isn't the issue money? If the programs are in such a bind why cut their potential sources of new revenue? Or let's think more immediately. How about a prescription drug benefit under Medicare? It's real popular. And, trust me, it'll cost a ton of money. So why not line up prescription drugs against tax cuts. The Dems' half a trillion dollar tax cut and a prescription drug benefit for your parents and grandparents versus Bush's cut for his wealthy campaign contributors (and, yes, our wealthy campaign contributors too). That sounds like good politics, doesn't it?

Ironically, the folks at the DLC (who I skewered in an article in the current issue of The New Republic) are actually the one's doing the most to get out in front of Bush in a tactically intelligent and principled fashion. But no one seems to be listening.

Anyway, I know I'm not the only one to think of these things. But it's not getting translated politically and there's really no time to lose. This ain't rocket science; but for most Dems you'd think it was advanced Relativity Theory.

Someone call Chappaqua! I think we need the old guy back. At least to call the shots.

Okay, so who's on this list of Senate Dems who are thinking of running for President in 2004 …

John Kerry:  thinks it's gonna happen, could happen

John Edwards:  everybody loves him, we'll see

Joe Lieberman:  Talking Points likes him, we'll see how he does

Joe Biden:  not a bad guy, maybe the first time was just a run through

Evan Bayh:  thinks it's gonna happen, not gonna happen

Tom Daschle:  just a small, small chance he runs

Paul Wellstone:  great guy, no chance, may run

Bob Torricelli:  may be deluding himself into thinking it's gonna happen, it's not

Dick Durbin:  the dark horse

What? No Hillary? You got it. Read this to see why.

And outside the Senate? Bob Kerrey (it really ain't gonna happen) and TPM's one and only, Al Gore (ahhhh ... we can dream).

We'll be talking more about this list?