“First Read” is a daily memo prepared by NBC News’ political unit, for NBC News, analyzing the morning’s political news. Please let us know what you think. Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.

Thursday, March 3, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
You know that private accounts won't make Social Security solvent.  The President has said it.  The pro-accounts Sunday talkers say it.  But that doesn't mean that Americans paying the usual small-to-moderate amount of attention to this issue don't hear the President and White House officials say in one breath that Social Security is going "bankrupt" and in the next breath that young people need private accounts, or even just hear that Alan Greenspan supports them, and make some connection between the two. 

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So we leave open the possibility that public opinion toward private accounts might shift after 60 days of campaigning by Bush, Cheney, and Cabinet officials.  In the coming days alone, per the White House, beyond Bush's stops in New Jersey and Indiana tomorrow, Treasury Secretary Snow will speak in Arkansas today and, later on, in Louisiana and at two financial industry conferences in DC, and SSA and White House economic officials hit Michigan and Maryland.

(We're not sure what to make of Snow telling reporters that Bush would consider ruling out the diversion of payroll taxes to private accounts, since while we suspect Hill Democrats might like that idea, we don't know what Hill Republicans think, and we foresee a situation similar to the last Bush floater -- that he might support raising the income cap.)

And New York Times poll numbers are, well, New York Times poll numbers: 51% think private accounts are a bad idea (that number shoots up to 69% when told those accounts would result in reduced guaranteed benefits), and 45% say Bush’s private account plan would financially weaken the nation’s retirement system.

Speaking of Greenspan, the newspapers play up his warning about the deficit, and his idea to possibly reexamine Bush’s tax cuts.

Bush focuses on security today, overseeing the swearing-in of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff at the Reagan Building at 9:25 am, and making remarks and taking part in briefings at the CIA starting at 1:25 pm.

And the Washington Post front-pages the little-noticed fact that Tom DeLay was only re-elected in November with 55% "against a relatively unknown Democrat," and that some in the GOP "worry that with President Bush absent from the top of the ticket next year, liberal interest groups might target the conservative majority leader and spend millions of dollars on campaign ads to try to defeat him."

First Glance links at bottom.

Social Security
Once again, not a lot of good news out there for the Administration.  There’s the New York Times/CBS poll: “The poll underscores just how little headway Mr. Bush has made in his effort to build popular support as his proposal for overhauling Social Security struggles to gain footing in Congress.”

There’s Bob Novak, who writes that Bush has privately told associates that he has committed a “whopper” in trying to sell Social Security -- by pushing private accounts but not talking enough about repairing the safety net for seniors. 

There’s the Washington Times, which reports that Bush allies feel he’s losing the battle over public opinion, because he has been reluctant to offer more specific details about his plans for Social Security.  “‘So far, the Bush administration has made a hash of its campaign,’ said Lawrence A. Hunter, chief economist of Empower America, an ally of Mr. Bush on Social Security reform. ‘It's almost like we're afraid to lay out the facts and trust the American people.’”

There’s the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which exhorts the Administration to retool its sales pitch on Social Security -- to make reform about ownership.  “Part of the problem is that Mr. Bush and his spokesmen have been promoting reform more as a kind of national forced march than as a great new opportunity for individuals to build and control their own retirement nest eggs.”

“The only political trump that reformers have, and the one the White House has to make its main theme, is ownership. Not just an ‘ownership society,’ in the good phrase Mr. Bush often uses, but ownership of your own payroll taxes to build your own retirement assets.”

The New York Times reports that Treasury Secretary Snow said the Administration would not rule out having private accounts on top of Social Security.  “Mr. Snow made it clear that Mr. Bush would prefer his approach, which is built on diverting a portion of a worker's payroll tax into a private investment account, and he predicted that the president's plan would win out in the end… But his willingness to consider the alternative, known as an add-on account, suggested that the administration was intent on retaining as much flexibility as possible to overcome the political and substantive obstacles that have slowed Mr. Bush's drive to overhaul Social Security.”

A front-page Wall Street Journal article reminds us, once again, that private accounts -- whether they are “add-ons” or “carve-outs” -- "won’t address the program's long-term solvency problems… That would require separate reductions in future benefits, tax increases, borrowing or some combination that Mr. Bush hasn't specified.”

Despite all of this, the Washington Post says that Bush remains "confident he is winning the first phase of the public debate over Social Security and has no plans to significantly alter his strategy."  The story notes that "Cheney, in particular, will assume a larger role in the effort, including attending town hall meetings."  And as far as Snow's comments about add-on accounts, the Post says: "White House officials are privately telling Republicans that Bush is opposed to the idea but does not want to say so because it would appear he is not willing to compromise." 

The Toledo Blade details the Bush Administrations 60-day Social Security "sales push" -- from now through May 1.

GOP Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona had challenged Harry Reid to a debate on Social Security when Reid and other Senate Democrats stop in Phoenix on Saturday.  But NBC's Rosiland Jordan reports that per a Reid aide, Reid will not respond to Kolbe -- not even a note to say "thanks, but no thanks."  The aide says the purpose of the session is for the Senate Democrats to make their points and then take questions from the public, "not to debate Kolbe."  Jordan reports that as many as 600 people could attend the Phoenix forum, and notes that Arizona is home at this time of the year to tens of thousands of "snowbirds" and their grandchildren who attend state universities -- two target audiences for both parties.

Yesterday, MoveOn PAC announced an Internet ad contest aimed at conveying "the consequences" of Bush's Social Security proposal to younger Americans who may not have the issue on their "radar" screen.  The ads will be judged by a panel consisting of actor John Cusack, Al Franken and Arianna Huffington.  The winning web ad will be named on April 13.

Tavis Smiley had the same thought we did -- that President Bush, for all he talks about how he campaigned on fixing Social Security, didn't really emphasize it during 2004.  Smiley asked RNC chairman Ken Mehlman about it in their interview the other day: "Why did this issue not come up in the campaign?  Why did the President wait until after the campaign to raise this issue if in fact he is so passionate and so serious about the system being in trouble?"  Mehlman: "He discussed it at the convention; he discussed it almost everywhere he went.  And one of the challenges in the campaign was this: He could give a 20 minute speech on the economy - 10 minutes on Social Security, 5 minutes on education and 2 sentences on Iraq and the press would say the President’s given an Iraq speech.  So the war on terror and Iraq had the effect, I think, of kind of dominating the public discussion."

Also in the African-American outreach department, the RNC's third "Off the Record" faux interview with a GOP rising star is with Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele.  The e-mail to RNC supporters reads, "As Chairman Mehlman said in Off the Record last week, our goal is to deepen our Party and bring in new faces and new voices."

Governor Schwarzenegger and Common Cause do a conference call with editorial boards on Schwarzenegger's redistricting plan at 12 noon ET (per the release, only editorial board staff will be allowed to ask questions; "news reporters will be allowed to participate in listen-only mode"), then the Governor does signature-gathering events for his pro-initiative Citizens to Save California in Santa Ana and San Diego.

The Los Angeles Times writes that the Schwarzenegger Administration is now backing away from its plan to privatize the state’s pension system.  “Finance Director Tom Campbell said Wednesday at a legislative hearing that the governor is open to changing the pension system in other ways, provided there are savings for taxpayers and predictable costs for the state… His comments come as the governor travels the state collecting signatures for a possible ballot initiative that would move government workers hired in 2007 and later into 401(k)-style accounts in place of set payments guaranteed at retirement.”

“But increasing opposition from police, firefighters and other unions appears to have weakened its prospects.” – Los Angeles Times

A separate LA Times article notes Schwarzenegger’s decreasing popularity, and the harsher rhetoric he’s using as he tries to move his agenda.  “He is turning last year's friends into this year's enemies.”

Finally, attorneys for Schwarzenegger “are attempting to block a state consumer group from intervening in a lawsuit filed against the state's political watchdog agency seeking to allow the governor to raise limitless funds for his ballot measures," says the Sacramento Bee.

GOP realignment
What happened to the Administration's plan to grant some sort of legalized status to illegal immigrants? 

We're seeing the White House and RNC try to broaden their base among traditionally Democratic constituencies.  RNC chair Ken Mehlman has aggressively reached out to African-Americans.  Bush's Social Security plan is targeted to young adults.  And last year, the Bush campaign's focus on national security last year was in part to sway women voters.  But with Latino voters being one of the most important demographic groups in future elections, we wonder what's become of Bush's guest-worker plan, which he proposed before September 11 and floated again after his re-election. 

Immigration is one of the few issues now that reveals a split within the GOP.  Some think liberalizing immigration is good business and good politics -- that the GOP needs to reach out to growing voting blocs.  Others think it endangers national security and eliminates good-paying jobs for American workers.  While initiatives like Bush's guest-worker proposal soften the party's image, efforts like GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's restrictive border-security bill arguably do the opposite.  And advocates of immigration controls tend to align with Republicans.

But Angela Kelley, the deputy director at the National Immigration Forum, which supports liberalized immigration, says the issue will come to the forefront soon.  Bush will meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox later this month in Crawford, TX, where the two men are guaranteed to discuss the issue.  And Senators McCain and Kennedy are expected to introduce bipartisan legislation to create a guest-worker program that offers legalized status to undocumented workers.

Kelley believes that giving legal status to illegal immigrants is a political winner for Republicans.  "It helps consolidate their remarkable gains [among Latinos] in the previous election," she says, explaining that Latinos see the issue of immigration as a litmus test of whether their politicians actually respect them.  But, she says, it could be a loser if Bush doesn't deliver, or if Republican opponents aggressively defeat it.  "If the Tancredos and Sensenbrenners out-shout other members, I do think... the community will react negatively."

Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates controls on immigration, has a different take.  Among the issues most important to Latinos, he says, immigration ranks near the bottom in polls.  "It's not clear that offering legalized status is a winner among Latino voters anyway."  And Camarota isn't betting that some type of immigration reform will end up passing anytime soon, because he says the public (according to polls) doesn't want to see more immigration.  The divide over immigration isn't left versus right, he explains.  "Really, it's a fundamental divide between public opinion and elite opinion" -- elites being journalists, lawyers, and business interests.

Ann Morse of the National Council of State Legislatures offers yet another take, which arguably implies a state-vs.federal split.  State legislators "view immigration in very pragmatic terms: There's a sizeable illegal immigrant population and the vast majority" of the legislators "see that they're working and want to find a way to help these people come out of the shadows, stop being a haven for potential terrorists, and stop avoiding law enforcement and start reporting crime." 

So what does the public truly think about immigration?  The new Westhill Partners/Hotline poll of 800 registered voters, including subgroups of immigrants, shows a majority of 54% opposing a guest-worker program -- including 43% who were strongly opposed.  The poll also shows an even split between those who want to decrease immigration and those who want it to remain at its present level; far fewer want immigration to actually increase.  Immigrants who were surveyed were more likely to favor keeping immigration stagnant than decreasing it.  Democrats also were more likely to choose that option, while strong pluralities of Republicans and independents favored decreasing immigration.  The poll was conducted for the Hotline by Reilly (D)/Rollins (R).

USA Today reports that a new Pew poll "of mostly undocumented Mexican immigrants" shows that 71% "said they would participate in a temporary visa program that would force them to return home but allow them to legally work here and travel to and from Mexico." 

Labor's decline
By a 15-7 vote, the New York Times says, AFL-CIO leaders voted against the plan -- backed by the Teamsters and SEIU -- to reduce individual unions’ dues by 50 percent, to free up more money to use in organizing.  “The unions backing the proposal vowed to continue fighting, saying they hoped to secure a majority before the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s quadrennial convention in July. Several also left open the possibility of a leadership challenge to John J. Sweeney…”

The Times adds that the SEIU’s Andy Stern dodged the question of whether his union, as he has threatened, would secede from the AFL.

The Los Angeles Times says the "defeat came during unusually intense and rancorous discussions…”

The Chicago Tribune notes that John Sweeney’s competing proposal, however, passed by a 14-8 vote.  "Though AFL-CIO officials would not describe the proposal, union officials said it called for 50 percent of unions' funds to go to a much-stepped-up political effort by the AFL-CIO and as much as $15 million to be rebated to unions for their organizing drives. These and other proposals, union officials explained, will be voted on at the Chicago convention."

Sweeney issued a statement last night saying he was "pleased" that the Executive Committee had given him a "mandate to move ahead with a plan that increases the labor movement’s investment in helping workers organize, and greatly expands our grassroots mobilization for political and legislative change."

So the debate within the House of Labor is to spend more money on organizing - or spend on politics and electing pro-union candidates.  We asked AFSCME president Gerald McEntee, who subscribes to the latter school of thought (but has still gotten into arguments with colleagues about how to approach it), for his views.  McEntee believes that "victories in the political arena are critical to stopping the unrelenting attack on workers' rights that is so prevalent, particularly in so-called 'red states.'"  He cites Missouri, Florida, and California as examples of states where labor is fighting to restore worker rights.  This, McEntee argues, puts the labor movement "constantly engaged in defensive battles" which stunts its growth. 

McEntee also said that labor supports Republicans "who do understand the importance of making sure that American workers get a living wage and decent benefits."

Charles Craver, a labor and employment law professor at George Washington University, says that "both the Democratic Party and the labor movement failed to appreciate how conservative the American electorate had become...  Many traditional Democratic voters from labor's ranks voted for Mr. Bush."  Whatever the school of thought about where to take the labor movement in the 21st century, the point is that they must organize and change "or die" says Craver.  He argues that the labor industry needs to create more relevant unions for different industries like retail/service, finance and technology, appoint leaders who reflect the people in those unions, and become less adversarial.  

Whither the democrats
We continue to be fascinated by how leading abortion-rights activists are gearing up to oppose Bush judicial nominees in a Senate where Democrats have enough votes to filibuster, but not a majority, while at the same time, these activists are fighting their own party's efforts to field pro-life candidates in states where such candidates might be well-positioned to win.  Roll Call covers a possible Democratic Senate primary battle in Pennsylvania between pro-life state Treasurer Bob Casey, who is expected to announce his intentions soon, and former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer, who is pro-choice.  Abortion-rights groups have protested about Casey to party leaders.

Roll Call tells us Sen. McCain is working on another book.

Meanwhile, Roll Call's Rothenberg considers why Evan Bayh (D) would be tough for Republicans to beat.

And John Edwards, we just found out, will be a visiting fellow this spring at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

First glance links
Greenspan and the deficit #1
Greenspan and the deficit #2
Trouble for DeLay in '06?


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