In the latest version of wingnuts playing Shoot the Messenger, the New York Times reports today that the mercenaries behind the swift boat ads have finally found another battle to fight: Social Security privatization. Perhaps realizing that the administration is losing the debate on its merits, and rapidly losing GOP votes in the process, they have decided to wage war against the largest and most visible group opposed to the Bush scheme, AARP.
As Atrios has pointed out, perhaps it is karmic payback for the lobby behemoth supporting Bush's ill-conceived prescription drug plan. Many seniors were rightly pissed off by the capitulation and ended their membership, and others -- wanting to hang onto their subscription to Modern Maturity -- have stayed despite misgivings about the leadership. In other words, the swifters may be able to take advantage of a crisis of confidence in the organization, and the Times reports they are prepared to spend millions to do so. AARP is large and very experienced and unlikely to fall into an August swoon the way Kerry did. Nevertheless, the swifters have shown they will play as dirty as it takes and AARP has a fight on its hands.
While Atrios and others point to the Medicare debacle of the last Congress, the scenario reminds me of the last time AARP stumbled badly, sixteen years ago over the Medicare catastrophic coverage plan. You can read Dan Rostenkowski's recollection of part of the story in an HHS oral history project; it's a pretty interesting read. In a nutshell, an insurance program was tacked onto Medicare to provide catastrophic health care coverage, passed with only a minor fight and signed into law by Reagan.
Then it hit the fan. AARP had misrepresented the program -- or at least hadn't explained its costs and benefits fully -- before it went into effect. Rostenkowski, one of the main forces behind the bill, said later that he regretted raising Medicare taxes immediately to fund it rather than phasing them in. Seizing the opportunity, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare misrepresented the tax as $800/month for every senior. The campaign worked, scaring the hell out of seniors and bringing in boatloads of new donations. You may remember one vivid scene when Rosty's car was surrounded by irate seniors picketing and yelling. Needless to say, Congress was scared senseless and promptly repealed the plan two years after enacting it. Only later did the NCPSSM folks admit that they were wrong about the $800 bit (it was actually a graduated tax, with the highest bracket paying $800; most seniors would have payed only about $4).
AARP allowed itself to get into that position by not fully explaining the program it was supporting, and then reacting slowly when it came under attack by others. The episode burned them and they had to rebuild their credibility. Something similar is at play now following the prescription drug debacle, which is why we should not underestimate the damage the swifters could do. The difference, however, is that AARP is not the only group coming to the defense of Social Security, and it is extremely unlikely that the swifters will replicate the stampede of public opinion NCPSSM created.