The front page of today's Wall Street Journal features an article ("Key Seniors Association Pivots on Benefit Cut") saying the organization "is dropping its longstanding opposition to cutting Social Security benefits." The piece is based on a conversation with AARP policy director John Rother. This is a big deal -- not because AARP was ever such a strong force against proposed benefit cuts (other groups are doing that much more effectively), but because the mainstream media is now full of headlines like this from ABC News: "AARP Wobbles on Social Security Benefit Cuts" and this column by David Von Drehle, from Time Online: "Victory! The Grey Goliath Gives Way on Social Security."
AARP members across the country are outraged. Some are burning their membership cards. The timing of this front page story couldn't be worse. Conservatives have fixated Congress and the White House on deficits and spending cuts that will kill jobs -- even though most Americans care more about jobs than deficits. Most Americans were heartened when Paul Ryan's plan for dismantling Medicare was decisively rejected by the very Republican voters of New York's 26th Congressional District -- after Ryan got almost every Republican in the Congress to vote for it. Democrats were starting to re-learn how to campaign as defenders of Medicare and Social Security. And now this -- from a top level AARP leader -- a real momentum killer.
Now, this obviously well-planned article in the Wall Street Journal, timed just as Joe Biden's deficit reduction talks are moving to "the difficult stuff," gives aid and comfort to conservatives and New Democrats who are on a jihad to make Social Security cuts a focus of deficit reduction -- even though America's largest retirement program has its own source of funding and can't contribute to the deficit.
It is well-known that Obama administration officials would like to have a deal on Social Security that changes the index by which benefits are raised each year (a big benefit cut) and which raises the retirement age (another big benefit cut) and also lifts the cap which limits the percentage of their income that richer people pay in Social Security taxes (a revenue increase). So far, that's been a non-starter with Republicans, who can't support tax increases on the wealthy. But with the press now trumpeting AARP's dramatic move toward benefit cuts, Republicans might come under pressure to make a deal. The irony here would be the White House using the AARP to leverage a deal that cuts benefits -- while doing nothing to reduce the federal deficit! Their answer if they could pull this off: It will reassure the bond markets.
This just in: The AARP has just issued a statement by their CEO, A. Barry Rand, entitled "AARP Has Not Changed Its Position on Social Security." In it, Rand calls the WSJ piece inaccurate and misleading, but doesn't clarify what they think was inaccurate.
In the Journal article, John Rother was clear that he's willing to support SS benefit cuts. AARP in its statement just reiterates its commitment to "solvency" of the program. I believe SS can be made solvent without benefit cuts. John Rother disagrees. Where does the AARP as the largest organization claiming to represent seniors stand? They are not clear.
The AARP statement claims to oppose including Social Security in the deficit discussions. If they really mean that, the group that promotes itself as the most powerful defender of seniors in America should get their vaunted citizen's lobby in gear -- to make sure Social Security doesn't become the sacrificial lamb of this dangerous season of budget-cutting blood on the floor.
Baby boomers are now beginning to retire -- and we have many fewer retirement assets (no pensions, devastated savings, unconventional work histories) -- and we are going to depend on Social Security even more than previous generations. We know we didn't join for the movie discounts. If we can't depend on AARP to fight for decent Social Security benefits, maybe we need a more activist organization that will.