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Daily Howler: Matt Miller put his words in your mouth. We thought about Moynihan's legacy
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MOYNIHAN’S LEGACY! Matt Miller put his words in your mouth. We thought about Moynihan’s legacy: // link // print // previous // next //

THE MILLER’S TALE: It didn’t take Matt Miller long. At the Times, he’s replacing Maureen Dowd for a month. And in the second paragraph of his very first piece, he boldly speaks on behalf of all Democrats. Miller makes a sweeping statement—a statement that is just flat-out wrong. For the record, Miller is explaining why Dems “should quit carping about Bush's evil ‘cuts:’”
MILLER (5/11/05): Start with this poorly understood fact: Under today's system of ''wage indexed'' benefits, every new cohort of retirees is guaranteed a higher level of real benefits than the previous generation. Workers retiring in 2025, for example, are scheduled to receive payments 20 percent higher in real terms than today's retirees. Today's teenagers are slated to get a 60 percent increase. When Democrats cry about ''cuts,'' they mean trims from these higher levels.
But that isn’t what all Democrats mean when they “cry” about those “evil” cuts. Perfect, isn’t it? Two grafs into his inaugural piece, Miller speaks on behalf of all Dems. And what he says is just plain flat-out wrong.

Why do Dems mean when they talk about Bush’s “cuts” in Social Security? Different Dems mean different things; given the party’s endemic intellectual failures, many Dems may not know what they mean when they discuss these cuts. But what do some Democrats mean when they talk about these cuts? Here’s what we mean here at THE HOWLER: Under current Social Security law, average earners get 36 percent of their prior income replaced when they get their SS check. Under Bush’s proposal, they may get as little as 20 percent. It may even go below that.

We’ll say this for Miller; his column shows what was wrong with that definition Kevin Drum adopted last week. “The Carpetbagger is right,” Drum said.”If you spend less than you've promised on a program, you've cut the program. President Bush should shelve the nonsense about how a cut isn't really a cut.” But if a program promises excessively generous future benefits, it’s a political loser for Dems to complain when such benefits get reduced. And that’s what Miller implies today; his column implies that Bush has proposed cutting benefits that are excessively generous. If that really were the case, the rest of Miller’s argument would follow.

But that really isn’t the case—of if it is, Miller hasn’t shown it. We’ll tell you what we’ve told you before. Just explain these facts to an average worker—that they’ll end up getting 20 percent of their income replaced instead of the current 36. Here at THE HOWLER, that’s what we mean when we talk about benefit cuts. But all hail the Miller’s inaugural tale! It only took the scribe two grafs to put his words right in our mouths.

Meanwhile, how bad is the Democrtaic Party’s intellectual heritage when it comes to explaining SS? For decades, the party has failed to explain the logic of the ginned-up talking-points and analogies which have driven our debates on this program. Is the trust fund just a hoax? Has the money already been spent? As conservative think-tanks have churned out the cant, Democratic entities have slumbered (leading up to Miller’s piece today). Why is our discourse about SS so inept? As we’ve examined this issue in the past several months, we keep coming back to one fabled Democrat. What follows is a quick review of his jumbled, incoherent legacy. Why have conservative talking-points driven so much of the 22-year SS debate? To answer that, we offer three words: Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

MOYNIHAN’S LEGACY: Why do average citizens misunderstand the Social Security trust fund so thoroughly? We asked ourselves that when we read this letter in Monday’s New York Times:

To the Editor:

As set up and later modified, the Social Security System had been working quite well. There was even some savings for a rainy day. Then, as John Tierney says, Congress spent the reserve in our trust fund, thus leading to the financial woes that the program now faces.

You can read the full letter here. But that short passage completely misstates the 22-year history of “the reserve in our trust fund.” Why are people so confused, so misinformed? Why are discussions of this topic so hopelessly murky? The more we look into that question, the more a culprit keeps turning up—the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In Sunday’s Post, George Will offered the latest praise for the solon’s great wisdom concerning SS. But has any Big Pol ever flip-flopped (or seemed to flip-flop) on an important issue so often? Has any Big Pol ever been so completely unable to explain his basic positions and statements? What follows is a rough beginner’s guide to Moynihan’s puzzling work in this area. As you’ll see, Moynihan’s legacy plays a key role in the confusions we deal with today:

January 1983: Moynihan is a key member of the commission which sets up “the reserve in our trust fund.” He never fails to remind us of his brilliant performance over the next twenty years.

May 1988: The system is operating just as Moynihan and his co-commissioners planned it. As is his wont, Moynihan pens a New York Times op-ed praising himself for his brilliance. “The current reserve is approaching $100 billion,” he gushes. “Between now and the year 2000 it will grow to $1.4 trillion.” Of course, all this money has been used to buy Treasury bills—in contemporary parlance, it has “already been spent.” But so what? “Our present deficit ‘path’ takes us, in theory at least, to a zero deficit by 1993,” Moynihan enthuses. “If that happens, the revenue stream from Social Security will be sufficient to begin retiring debt by 1994.”

December 1989: Moynihan seems to pull his first major flip. The system is continuing to work exactly as it was doing in 1988. But now he announces that the use of the trust fund is a form of “thievery.” Here’s how the New York Times limned it: “[Moynihan] assailed as ‘thievery’ the Bush Administration's policy of using the $52 billion surplus in the Social Security Trust Fund to finance the Federal deficit. The surplus money is used to buy Treasury bills; the surplus is also used as a bookkeeping method to offset the deficit.” In coming weeks, he also describes the practice as “embezzlement” and a “scam,” then heads off for a long vacation. “Even now, most non-retired adults do not really think they will get their Social Security,” he writes in a New York Times column, scaring the children and horses.

January 1997: In another New York Times op-ed, Moynihan congratulates himself for telling young Senate pages in 1994 that the system will be there for them. No one had ever told them before, he says, clapping himself on the back (text below). He also seems to reject the notion of private retirement accounts. “It would appear to me that once the great majority of citizens found that they would do better in the private investment part of this new system, support for the redistributive aspects of Social Security would quickly erode. It would become a residual relief program for the poor elderly, possibly turned over to the states as is done with welfare.” At the end of the piece, he directly speaks out against the risks of “privatizing Social Security” and “partial privatization.”

May 1998: The latest flip-flop: Moynihan now supports a plan which calls for partial privatization. Richard Stevenson, the New York Times: “Meanwhile, conservative groups were mounting an all-out campaign in favor of private accounts. On Capitol Hill, Republicans endorsed a variety of proposals—and jubilantly watched the Democratic ranks fracture as Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and others said they would back limited private accounts.”

May 2000: With Kerrey, Moynihan introduces a bill which would let workers use two points of their payroll tax to set up private accounts. (In contemporary parlance, these seem to be “carve-out” accounts, with money taken from the payroll tax and used for private accounts instead.) The plan would also reduce future benefits. And uh-oh! When Candidate Gore criticizes Bush’s “privatization” proposal, Moynihan denounces his party’s White House hopeful for daring to use such a naughty word. “That’s a scare word,” he thunders in a press conference. On page one of the New York Times, Gore is denounced in a “news report” for using such misleading language. Moynihan’s criticism is taken to prove that Gore was deceiving the voters—again. Text of this report below.

December 2001: Another apparent or possible semi-flip-flop! As co-chairman of Bush’s Commission on Social Security, Moynihan joins co-chair Richard Parsons in calling for private accounts. But now, Parsons and Moynihan seem or semi-seem to call for “add-on” accounts, not carve-outs. “These accounts could be financed by the individual worker voluntarily adding one percent of his pay on top of the present 6.2 percent employee share of the Social Security payroll tax,” they write. “The Federal government could match the employee’s contribution with a matching one percent of salary, drawn from general revenues.” In Sunday’s Post, Will quoted this part of the 2001 statement and explicitly said that Moynihan had favored “add-on” accounts. But then, that’s what Moynihan’s legion of defenders have been saying ever since Democrats recently decided, as a group, that the party doesn’t like “carve-outs.”

Perhaps there’s actually some sort of way to make this record coherent. And of course, it’s every solon’s God-given right to change his mind on a subject. Meanwhile, in some of his efforts, Moynihan may well have been pursuing perfectly worthwhile policy objectives; when he suddenly began shouting “thievery,” for example, he seems to have been trying to get Congress to reduce the overall budget deficit. But in the process, he greatly muddled the debate about “the reserve in the trust fund”—and when major leaders create such puzzling records, it becomes impossible for the public to understand major policy areas. Public discussion becomes next to impossible. As everyone knows, our current discussions about SS are almost wholly incoherent. Moynihan played a rich part in the process that led to this day.

We’d suggest that there were two particular low points in Moynihan’s meandering record:

First, when he used the word “thievery” in 1989, contradicting everything he had previously said, he established the idea that the government’s borrowing of the trust fund was a nefarious transaction. This had been a conservative talking-point in the past; now it became a mainstream notion, one that has lived on to this day—in Tuesday’s letter, for example. From that day to this, citizens like that Times letter writer have heard that “the reserve in the trust fund” is being “stolen.” They’ve heard that their trust fund has “already been spent.” They’ve even heard that future SS checks are less likely than UFOs (an idea that Frank Luntz put into play in 1994). And, to no one’s surprise, they’ve believed it. Democrats have made no real effort to straighten out these conceptual swamps—and Moynihan’s ranting in 1989 virtually set these notions in stone. Moynihan may have been pursuing a worthwhile policy goal when he played the rhetorical “thievery” card. But he legitimized a misleading notion from the kooky-con world, and it haunts our debate to this day.

Second, Moynihan’s attack on Gore for daring to say “privatization” must have been an all-time low in Dem electoral politics. As all good Democrats now understand, Gore was using a term that this plan’s proponents had always used in the past. He was using a word that Moynihan himself had been using just a few years earlier. But so what? The petulant solon trashed Gore for offering a perfectly reasonable criticism of Bush—a criticism with which every Dem now agrees. And Moyniahn’s words went straight to the Times front page, where they were used to continue the paper’s ongoing War Against Big Liar Gore. Everything Dems now anguish about followed from the outcome of that 2000 race. And there was Moynihan, trashing Gore for an obvious critique—and seeing his words fuel the latest attacks on the front page of the Times.

But never mind all that. Moynihan is a secular saint in DC, and saints must always be lavished with praise. Yes, our press elite really is a confederacy of dunces, and the fact that Moynihan is praised as a seer is Exhibit A in the proof. From 1983 to his death, Moynihan could never even come close to explaining the various stands he took on SS, and his almost cosmic incoherence became the hallmark of his party. In 1989, he took a piece of conservative cant and made it the defining idea of the age; in 2000, he trashed his party’s White House hopeful and helped put George W. Bush in the White House. Today, he defenders rush to every mike to swear that he favored “add-ons,” not “carve-outs.” But his legacy lives in that confused Times letter. The Olympian gods rock with laughter when they watch our SS debates, and they clap Moynihan on the back, thanking him for their great pleasure.

CHAIT GOT IT RIGHT: As we have noted before, Jonathan Chait was an early chronicler of what he called the “Moynihan Malarkey.” If you doubt us, just click here. While you’re at it, just click here as well.

MOYNIHAN CHASTISES GORE: When Moynihan trashed Gore in May 2000, the press was off on its latest tear about what a Big Liar Gore was. Consider James Dao’s front-page report in the May 5 New York Times. (It was the second straight day the Times had devoted a front-page report to Gore’s bad dishonesty.) The headline said this: “Giving Bush the Bradley Treatment.” And at the time, everyone knew what that meant; Gore was lying about Bush’s plans, just like he had lied about poor helpless Bill Bradley. Believe it or not, this is the way Dao began his report:

DAO (5/5/00): It has become the daily tit for tat of the presidential contest. Vice President Al Gore calls Gov. George W. Bush reckless, irresponsible, profligate or arrogant. And Mr. Bush calmly replies that the vice president is like an addict when it comes to distorting the truth.

If this kind of acrid exchange seems vaguely familiar, there is good reason: During the Democratic primary campaign, Mr. Gore relentlessly attacked the proposals of former Senator Bill Bradley as risky and expensive. And Mr. Bradley calmly replied that the vice president was addicted to distorting the truth.

Mr. Gore's harshly aggressive strategy worked just fine in the primaries, where Democratic voters who had initially seemed interested in Mr. Bradley abandoned him in droves. But the vice president is now engaged in a very different race against a very different opponent, who is considered quite adept at thrust-and-parry politics, and the question is, Can it work again?

Many people have their doubts. Though it may seem logical for Mr. Gore to try to bathe his less well known opponent in a negative light, the strategy carries clear risks, say independent analysts and some Democrats as well.

Please note: Bush wasn’t “painting Gore as a flip-flopper,” the odd formulation which Chait had adopted by October 2004 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/9/05). Bush was calling Gore a liar—and the New York Times was eating it up. But then, so were “some Democrats,” Dao seemed to say. Dao’s prime example? Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Here was Dao’s absurd first example of Gore’s “harsh aggression:”
DAO (continuing directly): For one thing, Mr. Gore is now playing to an audience very different from that of the primary campaign. Back then he was talking to largely sympathetic crowds of Democrats. Now he must court swing voters who are likely to be more skeptical of his credibility and less accepting of his attacks on Mr. Bush. Taken too far, the attacks could make him appear unpleasant, overly partisan, mean-spirited and untrustworthy to the very independent and crossover voters he is courting.

Even some Democrats seem to think that Mr. Gore's attacks occasionally go over the top. On Wednesday, Mr. Gore accused Mr. Bush of devising a "secret" Social Security "privatization" plan that would bankrupt the system. Today Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat who supports investing some of the Social Security trust fund in private markets, took issue with the word "privatization."

"That's a scare word," said Mr. Moynihan, who supported Mr. Bradley in the primaries but has since endorsed the vice president.

Uh-oh! Gore’s attacks on Bush were getting so bad that he might end up seeming “unpleasant, overly partisan, mean-spirited and untrustworthy.” And what was Dao’s first example of such a deeply disturbing attack? Of course! Gore had dared say “privatization!” The lunacy of this front-page critique is quite apparent to all Dems today. But there was Moynihan, battering Gore (in a press conference) for daring to say such a bad word.

Every problem Dems now lament stems from the outcome of that race. And yes, we do think it’s worth going back and remembering how we all got here. But then, why not visit our incomparable archives? The Times’ front-page “reports” on May 4 and May 5 were among the most tortured of the campaign. How far would the New York Times go to paint Gore as nasty and a Big Liar? Dao was willing to go very far. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/20/02 and 5/15/00 for more of Dao’s absurd examples. Also, click here and scroll to the bottom—to the “Daily Update” for 5/9/00. For reasons that will be fairly clear, we quickly abandoned this format.