The Note: Trillions Dollar Baby

WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 --


The horrific car bomb explosion outside of Baghdad -- killing more than 100 and sure to dominate cable and network news all day -- shows just how politically strong President Bush is right now.

We only reluctantly draw political lessons from human tragedy, but today's news is yet another reminder that on a range of issues -- national security, foreign affairs, budgeting, dealing with the nation's gathered governors -- the President has the whip hand.

Events and positions that would have brought hailstorms down on past presidents (say: Bill Clinton) don't seem to be seen as "political" problems for this administration right now.

In fact, with the oh-so-prominent exception of Social Security, it is amazing how relatively free and unscathed the White House is to pursue its at-home and abroad agendas.

The Democratic Party is still trying to figure out (1) what Howard Dean is all about; (2) what its positive agenda is/should be; (3) what its 2006 strategy is/should be; (4) who its 2008 presidential candidates are/should be; (5) how it should talk about Iraq; (6) which of allied interest groups it can count on; (7) if the Democratic Leadership Council or MoveOn is more of the answer; and (8) so much more.

Which makes the Social Security conundrum quite confusing and outlying.

We aren't embarrassed to admit that we don't have a clue where things are headed.

The political and policy outcomes remain almost too numerous to list (a protracted battle that ends in bipartisan compromise; a protracted battle that ends in a HillaryCare-style defeat for the President; a quick, face-saving plug pulling, etc), but what might be most significant now is that WITHOUT the Social Security fight that Mr. Bush picked, the Democrats would likely be scrambling even more than they are now.

With 99 percent unanimity, the Democratic Party elites stand united in terms of Bush-style personal accounts. There are tactical differences (most Notably about whether the party should offer its own plan for "saving" Social Security), but the unity, energy, and shared sense of direction that this fight is giving the out-of-power party can't be overstated.

So it would be interesting to see a parallel universe in which the Administration moved Social Security to the back burner and focused on its strengths everywhere else.

But that ain't gonna happen (as Joe Biden would say), so see our Social Security sections below for what is still the biggest story in American politics today, during what will be a busy busy busy week.

President Bush meets with governors at the White House at 11:15 am ET.

First Lady Laura Bush speaks at the UNESCO Education Summit at Georgetown University at 9:00 am ET.

Democratic governors, led by Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) will hold a press conference at the National Press Club at 2:30 pm ET to talk about the federal-state government relationship with respect to health care and other costs.

Today, the National Governors Association holds sessions on Medicaid and communications legislation at 10:30 am ET, after meeting with the President and before they lunch with the congressional leadership.

Governors and their working groups on economic development and commerce, education, early childhood and the workforce, health and human services, and natural resources convene at 3:00 pm ET. More talk on Medicaid tomorrow at 10:15 am ET, and there's a closed session on communications at 11:30 am ET.

The other big meeting all week in in Las Vegas, where the AFL-CIO gathers to plan its future and hear from leading Democrats.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales holds his first (on the record, off camera) briefing with reporters at 3:30 pm ET.

The Senate convenes at 2:00 pm ET to consider the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005.

This morning at 8:00 am ET at the National Press Club, the AARP Foundation sponsored a discussion about challenges facing employers and workers; Govs. Napolitano (D-AZ), Vilsack (D-IA), and Barbour (R-MS), as well as Bill Novelli of AARP, and others, participated.

At 10:00 am ET, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, along with representatives from Canada, Japan, France, and Great Britain, sign an agreement on next-generation nuclear technology.

Ken Mehlman addresses College Republicans at 7:00 pm ET at Howard University.

Tomorrow, President Bush delivers remarks at White House Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Leadership Conference.

On Wednesday, he talks about job training at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, MD, then participates in the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony Honoring Jackie Robinson and a photo op with the Boston Red Sox.

On Thursday, President Bush participates in Michael Chertoff's swearing-in ceremony at the Department of Homeland Security.

On Friday, the President hits the road to talk about his Social Security plan -- first to New Jersey, then to Indiana.

Tomorrow, the Senate Armed Services Committee looks at the FY2006 defense budget, military strategy and field requirements. Gen. James Jones Jr., commander, U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe; Gen. John Abizaid, commander, U.S. Central Command; Gen. Bryan Brown, commander, United States Special Operations Command, testify. The generals testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

Tomorrow, the Senate Budget Committee hears testimony from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also meets tomorrow to consider the President's judicial nominations.

Tomorrow, Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and John McCain (R-AZ) address the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Tomorrow, the Cato Institute releases its fiscal policy report card on the nation's governors.

The House Appropriations Committee considers the Pentagon budget on Wednesday, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff testifies on his department's budget.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) sets off this week on his four-state swing through Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and New Hampshire.

Social Security: the politics:

On the front page of Sunday's Washington Post, John Harris and Jim VandeHei broke some china when they wrote that even as the President begins really ramping up his sales pitch on his Social Security plan, some congressional Republicans are beginning to think about how to make a deal to get out of it, allowing Bush to claim victory that they system needs to be overhauled, while scaling back his proposals for how to do it. LINK

(Read to the bottom for what is the essential comparison with the Clintons and health care --- which is not the way opposition has lined up, but the calculation facing the President on when and how to try to play Monte Hall and split the difference. And it's not often that you get a time-travel trifecta of quotes from Podesta/Ickes/Gergen.)

There wasn't much follow up to the Post meta-bomb, but Robin Toner in the New York Times was forced to follow and floats Rep. Clay Shaw's "compromise" Social Security plan that calls for add-on accounts, $1,000 tax credits to pay for it (with borrowing). Payroll taxes aren't touched. LINK

Republicans are skeptical, but unnamed Democrats, at least in Shaw's opinion, seem interested.

Here's how Toner ends the article: "An article in The Washington Post on Sunday suggested that the Republicans were ready to deal on Social Security, but spokesmen for party leaders said it was still early in the legislative process."

A front-of-the-book Time item is extraordinarily downbeat (reflecting the media CW flawlessly), with Grassley and Shays saying the clock is ticking, blind quotes suggesting Easter as some sort of deadline, and the White House paraphrasing the Carpenters (Not "Hurting Each Other" -- but "We've Only Just Begun.").

Newsweek's slick Howard Fineman juxtaposes a "secret" meeting ("White House aides met privately with AARP chief William Novelli last week . . . ") -- and the Notion that the Administration doesn't "view AARP as the enemy" -- with this: "'The AARP is an ossified bureaucracy that isn't always responsive to its membership,' said a top White House official." LINK

And/but another "top official" one paragraph later recycles the metaphor that the Journal's John"PartyBoy" Harwood accepted last week: "I think the ice is breaking a bit . . . "

Finally, Fineman cites the 2003 AARP oppo packet on USA Next that went to journos last week.

Jill Zuckman's Saturday Chicago Tribune piece looked at potentially vulnerable House Republicans and what they are doing about their constituents and Social Security. LINK

With her classy "Payson, Ariz." dateline, Zuckman writes about Karl Rove's recent meeting at the White House with 14 of those "vulnerable House Republicans."

Whereas Bob Novak wrote over the weekend about a Thursday "closed-door Social Security briefing by . . . Rove and Al Hubbard . . . asking for help from business-oriented lobbyists, who so far have been lukewarm about the issue." LINK

Al Kamen has more on that meeting. (Note to Lisa McGreevey: pretty tame stuff for a lobbyist's e-mail, you lucky devil.) LINK

The Los Angeles Times' Ron Brownstein blasts USA Next's anti-AARP campaign in a must-read that examines the growing holy war over the powerful lobby, as both ideological sides, from this new group to, push the organization to choose sides. The question becomes whether the pressure is fair and focused on the issue at hand, or off-sides on some other ideological tangent designed specifically to inflame. LINK

Brownstein's verdict: throw the flag.

USA Today's William Welch and Jim Drinkard details USA Next's tactics, a hybrid of direct-mail tactics and Internet fundraising. LINK

USA Next today will send a letter to more than 400 top conservative activists urging them to take up the group's cause and defend it publicly.

An excerpt: "The launch of our campaign has yielded tremendous results . . . We've had over 3 million hits at our website,, in just the past week, sometimes at the rate of tens of thousands per minute."

"We ask you to encourage your members and friends to call into radio shows, and send in letters to the editor helping us to expose the liberal agenda of the AARP. We need to join together as a movement to aggressively and publicly hold AARP accountable for the terrible damage done to Social Security on their watch while they've been in charge of policy decisions for the last 40 years."

Roll Call's Chris Cillizza writes that some House Republicans, particularly in Florida, are going to face a tough go as to whether to stick with their party on overhauling Social Security, or stick with the wishes of the senior citizens in their districts.

"Of the 10 Congressional districts with the highest percentage of Social Security beneficiaries, seven are held by Republicans; five of those seven are in the Sunshine State. . . . approximately two-thirds of the 25 districts with the highest percentage of people on Social Security are currently held by Republicans, according to calculations done by TechPolitics, an Internet research site."

The Campaign for America's Future is doing some targeting of their own this week, going on the air with a small buy of ads on Louisiana cable this week continuing its criticism of Rep. James McCrery and his contributions from Wall Street.

Social Security: the policy:

Jackie Calmes blasts her way to A1 of the Wall Street Journal with this lede: "President Bush's campaign to revamp Social Security is just the boldest stroke in a much broader effort: To rewrite the government's social contract with citizens that was born of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and expanded by Lyndon Johnson's Great Society."

A history of the idea of the "ownership society" follows, with detailed descriptions of home ownership, health savings accounts and more.

The Boston Globe picks up the Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman's story on the variety of proposals and compromises on Social Security out on various tables to scale back the President's proposals, and as Sen. Rick Santorum mentioned yesterday on "Meet," possibly consider raising payroll taxes as an option. LINK

The Los Angeles Times' Joel Havemann has more on Santorum's comments. LINK

Smarty John Cogan tries to rally the troops in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "Personal retirement accounts, as the president has often said, will not by themselves fix Social Security's financial shortfall. Congress must take additional action to bring promised benefits in line with Social Security revenues. But personal accounts are an essential part of any fix."

Ah, but that "additional action" is sort of the rub for some, Professor Cogan.

The Los Angeles Times' Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger describe a White House campaign aimed at convincing African-Americans that the President's plan would benefit them. Unclear, however, how the "this will benefit you because blacks have a shorter life expectancy" approach will ultimately fly. It's driving congressional Democrats up the wall, not only because Republicans are going after some of their core constituents. LINK

"Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, all of them Democrats, waved off the idea that the administration's arguments could be persuasive with blacks. But conservative black activists say the president's proposal is receiving a warm response, and some independent polling backs up their claim."

On Saturday, Dick Stevenson had a great look at the genesis of the President's desire for personal accounts. LINK

Flinty Charles Stein of the Boston Globe ran the numbers on Saturday and found -- as others have -- that personal accounts might be a break even deal. LINK

Governors' agenda:

The Washington Post's Ceci Connolly and Dan Balz look at how Medicaid will top the next two days of discussion at the NGA meeting, as the White House "urges" governors to get in line behind a plan to restructure the program or risk having its budget cut by Congress. Democrats by and large are viewing it as a threat, while Republicans are taking a sunnier-side view that many of the suggested changes will end up a good thing. LINK

The New York Times' Robert Pear Notes that the business lobby is foursquare behind the attempt of 13 states to coordinate efforts to raise high school graduation rates. LINK

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of the Los Angeles Times outlines the plan announced Sunday by those 13 states to raise standards in their high schools and focus students on preparing for what would be expected of them in college and the working world. But the effort, called the American Diploma Project, is no No Child Left Behind, and will be coordinated by the non-partisan group Achieve, Inc. LINK

The Washington Post's Dan Balz on Sunday lead with Bill Gates' stinging indictment of American high schools at the National Education Summit, where governors and education professionals debated the way that high schools are run and could be revamped -- as well as how American students are performing. LINK

The Los Angeles Times Pete Wallsten found GOP governors semi-divided on Social Security reform on Sunday. LINK

Bush agenda:

The Washington Post's Robin Wright reports that President Bush appears willing to join Europe in offering incentives like future WTO membership to Iran in exchange for its turning over plans to develop nuclear weapons -- a carrots now, sticks later if there's no compliance plan that's a marked shift from his earlier policy that Iran shouldn't receive incentives for something it's supposed to do under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. LINK

"The Bush administration is barring private American AIDS organizations from winning federal grants to provide health services overseas unless they pledge their opposition to prostitution, as part of a broader Republican effort in recent weeks to apply conservative values to foreign-assistance programs," reports Michael Phillips in the Wall Street Journal.

Big casino budget politics:

On Sunday, the Washington Post's David Broder took a hard look at what President Bush's budget cuts and domestic discretionary spending -- and its caps -- mean for education, the environment, and poor families and children, while the biggest sources of spending, i.e., Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, remain off budget. LINK

Bush administration personality/strategy:

Saturday's Poughkeepsie Journal took Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-Saugerties!!) to task for casting baseless aspersions on Karl Rove. LINK


The Los Angeles Times' Maura Reynolds looks at the abortion debate hiding behind the bankruptcy bill the Senate is expected to begin looking at this week. LINK

The Washington Post's Chuck Babington profiles Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's chief of staff, Eric Ueland, continuing a long tradition at the paper of sucking up to key sources on the Fed Page. LINK

Stupidly, the Washington Post buried on Saturday's front page the Chuck Babington/Mike Allen must-read profile of the Speaker and the Leader/Dr./Sen. LINK

Nuclear free(ze) option:

New York magazine's John Heilemann takes a fascinating look at the efforts in the Democratic trenches, led at least in part by Ralph Neas, to take down Senate Republicans' "nuclear option" to block filibusters on judicial nominees. For one thing, Republicans' reasoning is a bit thin, Heilemann argues, particularly given the twin goals of keeping the base satisfied and building a long-lasting political majority. He takes specific Note of Neas' war room, including Joe Lockhart, Carter Eskew, John Martilla and former Judiciary Committee staffers who are veterans of past fights, and points to McCain, Hagel, and Nelson as proof that Neas' lobbying stands a chance. LINK

Jeff Toobin's New Yorker story on the potential for judicial filibusters and the nuclear option has interviews with about a dozen Senators (starting with Joe Biden and including Sen/Dr./Leader Frist through the '08 prism). Not a must-read, but a good primer for those readers playing catch up.

Roll Call's Paul Kane writes that Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) is taking a more active role in defending Democratic filibusters, and is gearing up to spend a good deal of time on the Senate floor if Republicans invoke the "nuclear option."

The Schwarzenegger Era:

The Washington Times' Audrey Hudson Notes that "During an interview on ABC's "This Week," the governor poured more cold water on the possibility of his becoming a federal candidate by refusing to address any national issues or to comment on policies being pursued by President Bush."

"Asked about Supreme Court nominees, Mr. Schwarzenegger said: 'I don't get involved. It's not a decision that I have to make.'" LINK

"He also declined to give his opinion on Mr. Bush's immigration guest-worker proposal, saying 'it doesn't matter what is mine, because it is a federal issue.' However, the Austrian-born governor said the issue of illegal immigration must be resolved."

"'We know that the amnesty program didn't work. We have done that once before under the Reagan years, and it backfired big-time,'" Mr. Schwarzenegger said.

Mark Sappenfield of the Christian Science Monitor watches as the clock ticks down for Gov. Schwarzenegger to take his ideas directly to the voters and bypass the state legislature. LINK

House of Labor's Extreme Makeover:

As the AFL-CIO prepares to kick off its annual winter meeting in Las Vegas today, labor's campaign against WalMart has a new opponent, sort of.

Writing in today's New York Times, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says that what makes folks so mad about WalMart is simply a symptom of big economic changes and customers' preference for lower prices.

"We can blame big corporations, but we're mostly making this bargain with ourselves. The easier it is for us to get great deals, the stronger the downward pressure on wages and benefits. Last year, the real wages of hourly workers, who make up about 80 percent of the work force, actually dropped for the first time in more than a decade; hourly workers' health and pension benefits are in free fall. The easier it is for us to find better professional services, the harder professionals have to hustle to attract and keep clients. The more efficiently we can summon products from anywhere on the globe, the more stress we put on our own communities." LINK

Andy Stern's Mona Lisa Smile adorns a Time Notebook item by Karen Tumulty about the Sweeney situation as Vegas approaches. LINK

Chairman Dean, the Democrats, and liberals:

Re: his visit to Kansas: If Howard Dean gets local press like this (ignore the lede), then he's home free. LINK

The good Doctor is quoted as saying "This is a struggle of good and evil. And we're the good."

The chairman, erh, Governor makes Time's Verbatim. LINK


An important inter-party battle for Democrats is shaping up in Rhode Island, as pro-choice fundraisers are starting an early campaign to prevent a pro-life Democrat from becoming the party's Senate nominee in 2006, the New York Times reports. LINK

That said, unless the movement described above enlists folks who aren't wealthy Hollywood types, it's probably not going to go anywhere.

Iowa Democrats in Ames spent Saturday night partying with Chet Culver and Ed Fallon and some beer and wine, with which the Methodist Church wasn't totally jake. LINK

Some Massachusetts Democrats -- including fellas named "Dukakis" and "Kerry" -- want to move the state's primaries to May. LINK

2008: Democrats:

The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz looks at the Hillary Effect -- a.k.a., catnip for political journalists. Note to Howard Wolfson: ouch! LINK

Sen. Clinton gets a Newsweek UP arrow. LINK

Former President Clinton told Japan's TV Asahi that he doesn't know whether or not his wife plans to run, but she'd make an excellent president. LINK

The News-Journal's Al Mascitti wrote his Sunday column all about how "chatty" Joe Biden is, which was certainly on display on "Meet" yesterday, when the man handicapped the 2008 fields on both sides, with particular homage to the formidableness of Sen. Clinton. LINK

Former Sen. John Edwards helped South Florida Democrats raise at least $75,000 Saturday but found a party preoccupied with the '06 governor's race. LINK; LINK; and LINK

Sen. Edwards is tentatively scheduled to visit Iowa next month. LINK

Sen. John Kerry talks more about his plan to expand the military and institute a military families bill of rights in a Boston Herald op-ed. LINK

We know of one governor who may be out of the running in 2008 -- or at least just wants people to stop talking about it on their own. This e-mail went out last night from

"Hello Supporters. Some bad news. We received the official request to abandon our efforts to get Governor Vilsack to run again in 2006. We certainly respect his decision but feel like we made a good last ditch effort. We've changed the site to reflect his wishes.

"Many thanks to those of you that put your names on the site and the kind words for our efforts.


But yesterday's Des Moines Register had a must-read Tom Beaumont story about how Vilsack plans a lot of '06 political work on behalf of others, after his high-level political pow wow last Friday. LINK

2008: Republicans:

Gov. Romney cut loose Friday night in Salt Lake, reprising his new national stump speech about Ronald Reagan and what a horrible place Massachusetts is (except when it's not). LINK

In Sunday's Boston Globe, Scott Greenberger and Raphael Lewis took at broader view of Mitt Romney's road show (in which he seems to some to trash the Bay State) and the balance between possible re-election and possible run for what some call "national office." LINK

The Boston Herald's David Guarino said yesterday that the state's Democrats are still hopping mad about what they saw on C-SPAN days ago. LINK

The Herald's ed board is wishy washy in its views on all this, but warns Romney that they are listening in Quincy when he talks out of state. LINK

Bob Novak says Gov. Romney's stand on stem cell research and cloning puts him at the center of a fight bigger than those over Iraq and Social Security. LINK

Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke to an Internet publication about his faith, his covenant marriage legislation, and his future. LINK

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette begins to Notice the presidential itchings of the state's governor, Noting that the NGA post did another state governor quite well. (And though Bill Schneider doesn't necessarily know about him, Charlie Black certainly does.) LINK

The Wall Street Journal's editorial board aims at yet another Republican who dares to violate its tax-free principles. "Colorado Governor Bill Owens used to be so enamored of his state's constitutional caps on spending that he instructed fellow Republicans about the merits of tax and expenditure limits. But that was then. These days you'll find Governor Owens crafting rationales to bust those caps and spend the extra loot that comes with a growing economy."


Stewart Powell had a weekend article about GOP 2008 jockeying that was wholly newsless but made good use of Newt Gingrich's views of the Bush/Rove capacity to anoint. LINK

AP lets the governors play coy on 2008. LINK


Andrew Sullivan channels (and cites) Hillary Clinton in writing Time's closing essay on the new liberal en vogue abortion position. LINK

New Hampshire:

There were some hidden coded political blueprints for '08 aspirants in the New Hampshire Sunday News story on how millions of tourist dollars find their way each year to the Granite State -- particularly to the Seacoast. LINK


Linda Greenhouse, in preview this week's SCOTUS arguments about the 10 commandments, suggests that Justice O'Connor will play the pivotal role in crafting a decision. LINK

Phil Shenon in the New York Times previews the Trmpac trial in Austin. LINK


The legendary Ken Auletta fills this week's New Yorker with a must-read profile of Dan Rather -- complete with a photo portrait reminiscent of that famous porous Janet Reno pix; the fact that most of the "60 Minutes" chaps watch Peter or Tom/Brian: Rather tears: and tons of good tidbits.

Politics as entertainment:

This week, the Center for American Progress kicks off its new monthly progressive film series, "Reel Progress," with a screening on Wednesday of "WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception," a film by (ABC News) journalist-turned-media-critic Danny Schecter, focusing on how round-the-clock coverage of the war in Iraq affected what the press did and does, and how it does it. The screening, which features a discussion with Schecter, Dr. Steven Krull of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, and Center for American Progress senior fellows Eric Alterman and Mark Lloyd, is at the Center's office on H Street from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm ET.