Senior Moment

A graying, bespectacled man with the pleasant, genial demeanor of a school-teacher, Naylor is the chief lobbyist for the AARP, the organization formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. A Republican-backed plan to add prescription drug coverage to Medicare had just been passed by Congress, after a crucial endorsement from AARP.

The endorsement drew howls of outrage from many Democrats and long-time AARP supporters. twenty-thousand AARP members quit the organization in disgust (although some ultimately decided merely to suspend their membership when given that option). And in an event that made national news, a group of retired union members gathered outside AARP’s massive headquarters on E Street and set fire to their membership cards.

When I met with Naylor a few weeks later, he pointed out that it was raining that day and that the cards are coated in plastic, making it next to impossible to actually burn them–but the demonstrators had made their point. “We went and invited them in,” Naylor told me. “I said ‘Look, we’ve got some coffee, why don’t we sit down and discuss it?'” The demonstrators huddled with their leaders, then declined the offer. Congressional Democrats, longtime allies of AARP, have been no more conciliatory. Eighty-five House Democrats publicly quit AARP or swore not to join, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi declared that the organization was “in the pocket” of Republicans– quite an about-face for an organization that Trent Lott derided only last year as “a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party.”

AARP leaders insist that endorsing the bill, and handing President Bush a huge legislative victory, was the right decision. The group’s dues-paying members “wanted something to happen,” says John Rother, AARP’s director of policy. Aware that the chance wasn’t likely to come again for the foreseeable future, the group wasn’t going to walk away from the $400 billion that GOP leaders had put on the table. “It was our top legislative priority for five years,” adds Rother.

The question, however, is whether AARP’s members wanted this bill. The GOP legislation provides generous drug benefits for lower-income Americans who aren’t poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, and catastrophic care for everyone. But for the vast bulk of seniors–in particular, for most members of the AARP–the benefits are very modest. So, where did all that $400 billion go? Around 22 percent goes to subsidies for corporations to encourage them not to drop whatever drug-coverage plans they already have, although the General Accounting Office has predicted that many of the firms will drop such benefits anyway. There’s another $14.5 billion (or almost 4 percent) to lure HMOs to compete with Medicare for patients. The bill also locks in high drug prices by forbidding the government to bargain for discounts, which means the funding that does remain buys less coverage than it otherwise might.

“This wasn’t a choice between this bill and the perfect bill,” Naylor says. “It was a choice between what we could get in this bill, or nothing.” But there is a little more to it than that. Over the past three years, President Bush and the GOP have made it abundantly clear to interest groups that they must support key Republican proposals to get a seat at the negotiating table on future legislation. And AARP has had plenty of occasions to get that message. AARP C.E.O. Bill Novelli is a longtime associate of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and in fact wrote an introduction to Gingrich’s recent book on health care. Novelli, who worked on Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign, is a founder of the P.R. firm Porter Novelli, which crafted the “Harry and Louise” ads that helped sink Bill Clinton’s health-care reform in the early 1990s. In the run-up to the bill, Novelli kept in constant contact with House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

AARPers believed, they say, that their members supported the bill. But in fact, the group was largely flying blind. Sitting next to Naylor on the conference table was a stack of papers about eight inches high–the 681-page final bill. Gesturing towards it, Naylor argued that ordinary AARP members could hardly be expected to understand everything in there. Because the bill was so complex–and because it was a work in progress, constantly changing as negotiations progressed on Capitol Hill–the polling, focus groups, and anecdotal feedback that AARP used to ascertain their members’ stance asked only about specific aspects of the legislation, rather than the bill as a whole. That left AARP leaders trying to piece together their members’ attitudes, without a clear idea of the level of support for the final version. But it had since become apparent how seniors really feel: Most polls now show that Americans 55 and over disapprove of the bill by wide margins. “We didn’t expect the attacks on us,” admits John Rother.

It’s hard to argue that the group’s endorsement was not, at the very least, a public relations debacle. Officially, AARP has not reversed its position on the Medicare bill. But in an effort not to further anger its traditional allies, the group recently pulled out of a White House-sponsored series of town-hall meetings to promote Social Security privatization–a decision which, in turn, did not please the Bush administration. AARP may be the biggest lobbying group in Washington, but these days it seems to have very few friends.

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