One Nation Under AARP

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Frederick R. Lynch, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, talks about his new book, One Nation Under AARP: The Fight Over Medicare, Social Security, and America's Future.

On Friday, AARP stunned many by backing off from its staunch defense of the status quo for entitlements for senior citizens. Policy chief John Rother told the New York Times that AARP was open to modest benefit reductions for future senior recipients.

Professor Lynch explained that the organization is evolving to be more inclusive and multi-generational, and is finding as it does that its priorities are shifting. 

They’re having kind of an identity crisis, I think, as a result of the Friday fumble, flap, whatever you want to call it, and that is: whose AARP is it, anyway?

Part of that inclusiveness has lead AARP from strictly defending entitlements onto looking at the consequences of current fiscal policies on younger generations. Lynch sees trouble in the new conflicting roles of the organization.

They’re looking very much at the long-term sustainability of Social Security. They’re using a lot of phrasing about how AARP is for everyone who has a birthday, and we’re interested in all generations, so I think there’s a question of focus here. Are they for seniors? Are they for everyone who has a birthday? And in whose interest are they operating?

AARP seems to be concerned that the current question of entitlements for seniors might turn into something of a war between generations, and an act to protect seniors now might alienate future seniors. Lynch said they are very sensitive to criticism that they are the “greedy geezer” organization, lobbying for white, middle class older people that don’t really represent the political interests of older people. The organization is trying to adjust politically, Lynch said, adopting more of a stewardship sensibility toward the nation.

[It] is very welcome, very admirable. We could use a lot more of that, you know, what is good for the nation, but I think in this fight they have to think, well, are we fighting for the interests of the nation as a whole, or do we really have to double down and protect seniors?

Despite the AARP’s nonpartisan approach, conservative talk show hosts sometimes rail against AARP as being a liberal organization, even going so far as to encourage their listeners to join alternative senior organizations with conservative politics. Lynch said to some extent it comes down to AARP’s split identity as both an insurance company and a lobbying organization.

It ‘s a really unique little model that they’ve got going there. It’s both a [non]profit and for profit model. They sell a lot of services to seniors, a lot of products, particularly insurance, and that really was the original mission of the organization…but the other side of the organization is nonprofit,, and that includes political advocacy and a certain amount of charity work, free services for seniors and so forth.

This clash was particularly evident following the Affordable Care Act.  While the AARP fought for what they saw as good policy for their seniors, many members of the organization were alienated by perceived partisan support. Membership in the AARP dropped from around 40,000 to 37,000 members. Despite this defection, conservative groups set up as alternatives to the AARP haven’t become large enough to gain any traction.

These conservative groups have simply gone nowhere…They seem to get animated when a Medicare change or a Social Security change is coming up. Their funding sources sometimes aren’t clear, a couple of them are rumored to be heavily funded by the pharmaceutical industries, but nevertheless, they simply have not taken off and AARP remains the nine-hundred pound gorilla in terms of senior politics.

Liberals have problems with the AARP at times too, and were unhappy with the deal struck surrounding prescription drugs in the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act. Lynch explained that AARP was taking what it could get, and that the health insurance overhaul legislation was an opportunity to improve that situation.

AARP may be the only major force out there that can put the brakes on what seems to be a gathering coalition to really cut into Medicare and to really cut into Social Security. I think one reason that Rother may be offering compromise at this point is I think it’s kind of lonely out there being the tribune of the people.