November 20, 2003,
Not for the first time, one has to give the White House political team some credit: They have split Ted Kennedy from the AARP, and the resulting Democratic backbiting has been very helpful to Republicans. But Republicans had better remember that the split is likely to be temporary.
Earlier today, Speaker of the House Denny Hastert issued a press release defending the AARP from the attacks of various Democrats. He said, "I have had years of discussions with the AARP and respect their opinions. I can say that AARP has always been steadfast with one goal in mind to help seniors get better benefits so they can lead more productive, healthier lives." Hastert has also said that the AARP's endorsement of the Medicare bill represents a "good housekeeping seal of approval." Florida congresswoman Katherine Harris said that in her district, "the AARP is considered the gold standard on these issues."
Let's try to think our way through to next year, or the year after that. Let's assume that the Medicare bill is everything Newt Gingrich et al say it is: fiscally prudent, chock full of reforms, market-oriented. Presumably as soon as the bill passes, Ted Kennedy will start trying to "fix" the bill, as he would have it, to eliminate just these features. He will introduce a liberal bill to reform the reforms and it will be one that can get the support of AARP, which has been promoting today's bill while acknowledging that it is not entirely thrilled by it. Hastert and company will then find themselves fighting a bill that has earned what they themselves are now calling a good housekeeping seal of approval, from an organization that has nothing dearer to its heart than the interests of seniors.
AARP's political clout is nothing to sneeze at. But it's also not an unerring guide to the views of America's elderly. During the debate over the Medicare bill, people in Washington have occasionally reflected on the last attempt to add prescription-drug coverage to Medicare: the catastrophic health care bill of 1988. That attempt was a miserable failure, generating intense opposition from its supposed beneficiaries. Retirees weren't willing to pay for new benefits. The bill had to be repealed within a year. Over the last year, there has been some speculation that the whole scenario could be replayed. If so, let's not forget another parallel: AARP was for the catastrophic health-care bill too.