Long simultaneously hailed and reviled as one of Washington’s most effective and self-centered special-interest groups, AARP is at it again – causing fits for President Bush and congressional Republicans after, ironically, handing them a big political victory.
The organization, until recently known as the American Association of Retired Persons, is providing shock troops in the national guerrilla war against the president’s proposal to divert a portion of Social Security taxes into private accounts.
Recovering from two years of strained relations, congressional Democratic leaders are cozy again with AARP, which claims a membership of 35 million Americans 50 years and older.
The strained relations arose because AARP supported Bush’s Medicare prescription-drug plan in 2003, despite pleas to the contrary from such longtime allies as Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and the late Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif. There was joy in the White House, but recrimination in Democratic ranks.
Political strategists say that AARP’s support in 2003 for the prescription-drug plan was a critical plank of Bush’s re-election campaign, giving him something to brag about on the domestic front.
To Democrats, AARP pulled the rug from under presidential candidate John Kerry and Democrats trying to wrest back control of Congress.
As a consequence, 70,000 of AARP’s members quit. Critics said AARP went with Bush on prescription drugs because it is fundamentally an insurance company and it sought to expand its health-insurance interests.
“We spent the year essentially making up that lost ground, but now we’re basically back where we started in terms of public perceptions toward AARP,” said AARP chief executive Bill Novelli, a former public-relations executive.
“We have no permanent friends, no permanent interests, just enduring interests,” he added.
“AARP’s support for the president’s prescription-drug bill gave it credibility and showed it was not just in a knee-jerk alliance with the Democrats,” said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “But that also made it necessary for AARP to rebuild its standing with its members.”
Indeed, AARP, headquartered in Washington with chapters across the country strung together by the interests of an aging society, is singing a new tune these days.
No longer the consummate backer of a Bush plan, it has become perhaps the president’s most formidable grass-roots opponent on changing Social Security.
“Politicians can’t ignore the AARP. It has power, and that’s what worries candidates who go with Bush on Social Security,” said Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution.
“Candidates for Congress fear that the AARP will use its power against them at the next election, and in many campaigns that would be the difference between victory and defeat,” Hess said. “That’s why we’re seeing Republicans move so cautiously on the president’s proposal.”
Even as AARP creates forums that rip apart Bush’s voluntary private accounts plan, AARP leaders have been unwilling to take questions about their tactics.
House GOP leader Tom DeLay of Texas lashed out against AARP, declaring it was “against a solution that hasn’t been written yet.”
AARP spokesman David Certner responded that the group is “opposed to the central notion of trying to improve Social Security solvency by taking more money out of Social Security.”
In his syndicated column, Rich Lowry of the conservative National Review magazine wrote that the AARP campaign against the president’s plan “further cements its status as the country’s foremost lobby against reform.” Lowry castigated Novelli for fighting the president on Social Security after supporting “the hellishly expensive Medicare bill.”
AARP also has come under fire from the United Seniors Association, also known as USA Next, created by conservative activist Richard Viguerie in 1999.
“AARP has championed high taxes, big government and bureaucratic boondoggles since the first day it opened for business in the 1950s,” according to William Brindley, executive vice president of United Seniors Association.
GOP leaders contend that AARP has been effective in fighting the president’s proposal but delinquent in not putting forth its own detailed plan on how Social Security can avoid the shortfalls predicted later in this century.