Seniors Group in Face-Off

February 27, 2005 | By Laura Petrecca

For nearly 50 years, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that what was good for AARP was good for senior citizens.

But in the increasingly contentious fight over Social Security, the administration and its allies are doing what was once unthinkable—challenging the nation’s most powerful lobby.

Columnists and political action groups have targeted AARP’s 35 million members, saying that the group, once known as the American Association of Retired Persons, is no longer looking out for their interests.

AARP has also been hurt by its support of President Bush’s Medicare bill, which thousands of its members opposed. Analysts say it will be hard for AARP to maintain its membership rolls with independent-minded baby boomers, especially if it’s seen as supporting one political party.

Conservative organization USA Next is the latest group to turn its guns on AARP. It plans a $10 million campaign to counter what it calls AARP’s liberal leanings on hot-button issues such as Social Security reform, death taxes, Medicare and Medicaid.

“They’re a mammoth liberal lobbying Goliath and we’re a little determined David against them,” said Charlie Jarvis, USA Next’s CEO and lead attack dog. The organization has enlisted the team behind the John Kerry-bashing Swift Boat ads to launch a campaign against AARP dubbed “Stop Scaring Seniors Now.”

The USA Next assault comes as AARP vies to keep its current member base happy while filling the pipeline with graying baby boomers. Some question if those boomers—more than 75 million strong—will embrace their father’s lobbying group.

Boomers are known as diverse thinkers not likely to follow tradition. William Strauss, author of Generations: The History of America’s Future, puts it this way: “This is a generation that burned their draft cards. What will they think of the AARP?”

AARP insists its base is strong and growing. “The boomers are joining AARP at the same rate as their parents,” said a spokeswoman.

But at the same time, they’re extremely vocal—and taking action—when they disagree with the organization. An estimated 60,000 people dropped their membership after AARP backed a Medicare bill they thought was too pro-pharmaceutical companies and lacked enough benefits for seniors.

Rival groups such are trying to exploit any cracks to swell their own membership ranks. At USA Next, Jarvis is dodgy about its paid membership, saying only that it has 1.5 million “member activists” but added that he’s looking to grow at AARP’s expense.

Baby boomers, who have clout through their sheer numbers, as well as the almost $3 trillion they pack in combined spending power, are the older group most of these organizations want.

AARP has already taken great pains to court this generation. In a marketing move to distance itself from the image of creaky shuffleboard-players, AARP officially shortened its name to an acronym.

It launched the since-failed magazine “My Generation” to court boomers. AARP now spices up its traditional magazine with photos of Oprah and interviews with rock stars.

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