January 13, 2005, 7:15 a.m.
A needless battle.The AARP needs its “fair and balanced” prescription refilled. It’s tilting with such ferocity and alacrity against the White House on Social Security reform, Dramamine may be the only cure for its political vertigo.The senior-citizen lobbying group launched a preemptive, $5 million ad campaign last week, trashing the Bush administration’s efforts to reform the program before the White House had even released a specific plan. Many in Washington see the initiative as a transparently partisan ploy to get back into the good graces of the Democrats after AARP supported the Medicare Modernization Act in the last Congress. That’s probably true. But there’s a bigger question. Why now?The advocacy group’s efforts are both substantively lame and tactically misguided. For political and policy reasons the AARP is barking up the wrong tree. First, consider this minor policy detail: The Bush plan is non-compulsory and is unlikely to have an impact on AARP members. Writing recently in USA Today, Al Neuharth recognized this by noting that “the Bush plan would not affect current retirees and probably not be available to those still working who are 50 or older.” Moreover, he argues, the plan “would be strictly voluntary and simply permit younger workers to invest some (maybe up to $1000 a year) of their Social Security payroll taxes into private retirement accounts. The AARP’s ad blitz is trying to scare old folks into believing their Social Security payments are in jeopardy. Simply not true.” So why is the AARP spending $5 million of its members’ contributions on a plan that’s both voluntary and probably won’t even apply to its constituency?“Payback — pure and simple,” a former House Republican leadership aide who worked on the Medicare legislation told me. Heavily criticized by Democrats for its role in supporting the Medicare Modernization Act, it now appears AARP wants to balance the ledger. But, like giving electoral contributions to both sides, this kind of inside-the-Beltway tactic ends up leaving neither Republicans nor Democrats satisfied.But even if “payback” was the motive, tactically the move is highly suspect for other reasons. It’s as if AARP is stuck in a time warp, thinking the Democrats still control the levers of power in Washington, and that it necessarily needs to shill for liberal policies and politicians. How does kowtowing to a bunch of liberal politicians benefit real life senior citizens? It doesn’t take bifocals to see the Great Society programs are no longer cutting edge and that Democrats don’t hold a monopoly on retirement-security policies anymore.Moreover, President Bush’s popularity among seniors is growing. Compared to 2000, when he lost the over-65 vote to Al Gore 47 percent to 50 percent, Bush won the senior vote in 2004 over Senator Kerry 52 percent to 47 percent. Why would this so-called advocacy group for the elderly preemptively attack a yet-to-be-developed White House plan when its own members are increasingly supportive of the president?The AARP has erred badly in this opening round of the Social Security debate, wounding the image of an association that could play a useful role in the legislative process on this critical retirement-security issue. Its premature pronouncements suggest motives far different than ensuring its members get a fair shake and sound representation. The AARP leadership would be well advised to listen, learn, and then speak — as Newt Gingrich used to say — rather than condemn its members to the margins, turn its leaders into irrelevant gadflys, and create an abiding image of the AARP as a Democratic shill group.— Gary Andres is vice chairman of research and policy at the Dutko Group Companies and a frequent NRO contributor.