The AARP Scrambles the Politics of Social Security

Pundits across the political spectrum find themselves in new territory on the issue

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In a major reversal, the AARP, one of the most powerful lobby groups in Washington, is dropping its no-cuts position on Social Security benefits. "AARP now has concluded that change is inevitable, and it wants to be at the table to try to minimize the pain," reports The Wall Street Journal's Laura Meckler. After a "wrenching" internal debate, the group decided to launch a coast-to-coast town hall campaign this summer to explain to some of its 37 million members why change is necessary. The report has elicited a diverse response across the political spectrum. Here's how political pundits are coming down on the decision.

Angry liberals Playing this role is Fire Dog Lake's Eric Kingson who said he's burning his AARP card. "AARP’s position is extremely damaging to the future of Social Security and to the many baby boomers it is working hard to entice into its membership and engage in many of the services it sells and sponsors," he writes. "Given the economic challenges facing today’s older people, especially those approaching retirement, we should be doing what we can to focus policy discussion on how inadequate the nation’s retirement income system is to deal with the very serious risks (health care costs, lack of LTC protection, job losses, declines in values of housing and occupational pensions, IRAs) confronting those in retirement and those who will soon be. Instead of seeming to position itself as a reasonable inside deal maker that is open to benefit cuts, AARP should be educating about the need to selectively improve the one economic security institution that works quite well (SS)."

Sanguine liberals This is the camp Mother Jones's Kevin Drum and Time's David Von Drehle fit into. Drum calls the AARP's change of heart necessary. "Unlike most liberals, I welcome this," he writes. "I continue to think, as I have for a long time, that (a) Social Security ought to be put on a firmer financial footing, (b) this can be done with a very modest package of tax increases and benefit cuts, and (c) this would satisfy centrist critics like the Peterson foundation and the Washington Post, and without their help the ideologues who want to destroy Social Security would have no ground to stand on. They'd keep yelping, but no one would pay any attention to them." Von Drehle puts the decision in the perspective of Congress getting serious about deficit reduction. "This could be a significant step in the right direction," he writes. "Deficit Commission Co-chair Alan Simpson compares the move to 'the Arctic icecap breaking.' And this is not the only hopeful sign breaking through the depressing demagoguery of party leaders on budgetary matters. Yesterday, a bipartisan Senate voted overwhelmingly to kill wasteful subsidies for ethanol."

Angry conservatives Not making any real point for or against the decision Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit simply doesn't like the organization. "IT’S AMAZING HOW THINGS CHANGE WHEN YOU RUN OUT OF OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY," he writes. "the AARP — which is basically an insurance pitch masquerading as a seniors’ advocacy organization — has shown itself willing to sell out its constituency in the past, so maybe they just see this as an opportunity to peddle variable annuities or reverse mortgages or something. "

Cautiously optimistic conservatives Andrew Biggs at the conservative thinktank, American Enterprise Institute, is skeptical about how serious the AARP is but pleased it's "coming back to reality." "To be sure, I’m confident the internal preference at AARP has been and will continue to be to fix Social Security almost entirely by raising taxes," he writes. "That’s just where they are on this. However, if you talked to AARP staffers offline it was clear they realized that any deal would likely cut benefits and they would even tell you which benefit cuts they would be most open to."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.