||Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.
The AARP and the GOP
WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- Not since 1997, when former Republican Senate Whip Alan Simpson of Wyoming retired, had Washington heard the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) publicly excoriated like that seniors group was this past week.
Simpson used to delight in exposing the disconnect between the editorial and advertising sections in the AARP's magazine: The former would describe impoverished, older Americans sentenced to survive on dog-food, while on the next page glossy ads offered year-long, around-the-world cruises.
With characteristic understatement, the Wyoming maverick defined the AARP as " 35 million Americans bound together by a common love of airline discounts and automobile discounts. ... They're selfish, greedy. They don't care about their grandchildren a whit."
This time, leading Democrats on Capitol Hill (who had gratefully welcomed the organization's endorsement of the1994 Clinton health care plan) condemned the AARP for "being in the pocket of the House Republican leadership," and much worse, because the AARP endorsed and went to work in behalf of the GOP-crafted Medicare prescription drug bill.
Forget all the purple prose comparing the AARP, unfavorably, to Benedict Arnold or Judas Iscariot. As John Feehry, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., put it, "The AARP is the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval when it comes to seniors' issues."
This is also a major political coup for the Bush administration, congressional Republicans and for Hastert, who according to colleagues, has for two years been courting the seniors' organization.
To counter opposition from many on the political right, including the American Conservative Union, which called the $400 billion drug plan (certain to double and probably triple in cost in its second decade) "the biggest expansion of the Great Society since Lyndon Johnson was president," the House leadership brought back former Speaker Newt Gingrich to sell the plan to skeptical House conservatives.
Gingrich, whose own political fortunes hit a rough spot when he was accused of trying to cut Medicare funding, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution argued that the legislation's embrace of a long-cherished, conservative objective, medical savings accounts (a tax break for the affluent), made the bill "the largest change in health policy in 60 years." Hyperbole and Newt have never been strangers.
Veteran Democratic strategist Guy Molyneux fully appreciates the major political stakes involved in this GOP-AARP alliance: "If both the Medicare prescription drug bill and the energy bill are passed by this Congress, then a strong case could be made for the effectiveness of a working Republican majority."
There is a serious case against the prescription drug bill, beginning with the bill's prohibiting the Medicare authorities -- with the immense clout of 40 million clients -- from any bargaining with the drug companies for better prices. Talk about a sweetheart deal for the pharmaceuticals.
Repeating their cowardice in ducking the bill for the invasion, occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, the Bush administration and congressional Republicans are refusing to pay.
Their answer is instead to shift the entire burden and cost of the war and the new seniors' drug benefit, along with the cost of the Bush tax cuts, on to our kids and our grandkids, while all the time hypocritically proclaiming how much we love and value them.
As the president of the AARP said in explaining his organization's support for the GOP drug legislation, "Our interests are what is best for our members and all older Americans." Sorry, no room in there for anybody else but old number one.
Still, if these strange political bedfellows -- the AARP and George Bush's GOP -- can in collaboration produce a long-sought law to provide prescription drug coverage to senior citizens, the political fallout will be profound. And any way you look at it, the immediate and inescapable verdict will be a Republican victory and a Democratic defeat.