The debate over President Bush's proposed Social Security reform is spawning new pro- and anti-groups nearly every day. The latest is Conservative Republican Seniors Against Bush.
Actually, that's not a new group. But the moniker describes many seniors who voted for Bush and are members of the AARP. The AARP has 35 million members, more than the population of Australia or Canada. One survey shows that nearly 40 percent of them are self-identified conservatives.
This makes sense, since most people when they sign up for the AARP aren't thinking politics so much as "cheap stuff." The group offers discounts on everything from drugs to flowers to cruises, helping make growing old in America about never having to pay full price again. But the $12.50 annual dues payments of conservative members happen to fund raucously unfair attacks on the central domestic-policy proposal of a president they overwhelmingly support. But, hey -- what are political principles compared with a 25 percent discount on a stay at a Marriott in Boca Raton, Fla.?
In attacking Bush's proposal, AARP defenders might say the group is only doing its job -- standing up for the interests of its members. Nonsense. The Bush proposal wouldn't touch anyone 55 years or older, and thus leaves the vast majority of AARP members undisturbed. What the AARP is advocating for is not the financial well-being of its members so much as an ideological vision of an entitlement state that limits individual choice and emphasizes governmental dependence.
This is the only reason a seniors organization would go to such lengths to oppose personal savings accounts as part of Social Security for young people, who aren't AARP members now and would probably be better off for having the accounts when they are old enough to become members. In other words, by opposing the accounts and proposing other fixes to the system -- such as tax increases and benefit reductions -- the AARP is essentially doing nothing to protect its current members at the same time it hurts its future members.
Another sign that the AARP is driven by politics is that it has stumbled into that common pitfall of partisan advocates -- hypocrisy. In one of its ads it has a couple saying of investing in the stock market: "If we feel like gambling, we'll play the slots." This from an organization that offers its members the opportunity to invest in 38 separate mutual funds. To date, the AARP doesn't encourage its members to play Internet poker or slots on its Web site, a sign that it doesn't truly consider investing equivalent to gambling.
The AARP takes a nice cut from each mutual-fund sale. What the organization has done brilliantly is to leverage its status as a popular conduit of cheap services and goods for seniors -- from which it makes countless millions in royalties -- into credibility and power as a liberal lobbying group. The AARP has such a strong brand that it can demagogically attack Bush's proposed Social Security reform as "Social Insecurity" (oh, what clever wordsmiths at the AARP) with more street cred than other shrill liberal outfits such as MoveOn.org.
But the AARP is not going unchallenged. A new conservative seniors group called USA Next is ripping into the AARP, riding a wave of publicity from its (rather ham-fisted) attack on the AARP on the issue of gay marriage (an AARP affiliate in Ohio opposed an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment in the state). USA Next (www.usanext.org) is making its case not just on political grounds, but with a dagger aimed at the heart of the AARP's appeal -- cheaper discounts on travel!
Discounts aside, the imperative for Republican seniors who support Bush's reform should be clear: Because Bush's second term -- at risk in the fight over Social Security -- is important; because individual choice is superior to governmental dependence; because hypocritical and dishonest advocacy should be shunned, not subsidized with membership dues -- quit the AARP.