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Attack on AARP, Like ‘Religious War,’ Built on Either/Or Fallacy

As synonyms for the word “vile,” my thesaurus offers some of the following: offensive, objectionable, odious, repulsive, repellent, repugnant, revolting, disgusting, sickening, loathsome, foul, nasty, contemptible, despicable and noxious.

Any of those words would aptly describe the advertising attack launched last week against AARP, the largest advocacy group for seniors, by the conservative interest group USA Next. But there’s one word that unfortunately can’t be applied: surprising.

The salvo against AARP crystallizes trends developing both in the debate over Social Security and more broadly in the competition between the parties in Washington. On both fronts, the news isn’t good.

USA Next, which envisions itself as the conservative alternative to AARP, previously made its biggest splash by using drug company money to help fund an ad blitz promoting the Medicare prescription drug plan backed by President Bush and the pharmaceutical industry. That led critics to accuse the organization of operating as a front group for the drug makers.

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Last week, USA Next announced it would spend $10 million on an ad campaign attacking AARP over its opposition to Bush’s proposal to create private investment accounts funded by the Social Security payroll tax. USA Next opened the campaign with an Internet-only ad that uses logic so contorted it verges on parody to accuse AARP of opposing the military and supporting gay marriage.

Charlie Jarvis, USA Next’s chairman and a former aide to President Reagan and religious conservative powerhouse James Dobson, promised that was just the start for AARP. “They are the boulder in the middle of the highway to personal savings accounts,” Jarvis told the New York Times. “We will be the dynamite that removes them.”

In 50 years, historians may study that quote to understand why Washington now feels so much like Beirut.

AARP represents 35 million seniors. Like any lobbying group, it sometimes slights the national interest while pursuing its members’ interests. And it is emerging as a major obstacle on Capitol Hill for Bush’s proposal to carve out investment accounts from the payroll tax.

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But the organization has never ruled out supporting individual investment accounts as an addition to Social Security. And in a recent speech, its chief executive, William Novelli, left open the door to “possibly adjusting benefits” -- which means cutting them -- in an overall reform package.

With those positions, the group could contribute to a legislative compromise that advances the top two goals Bush has articulated: expanding ownership and closing Social Security’s long-term financing gap. Indeed, Bush’s odds of reaching any Social Security deal before 2006 will be much better if he can win support, or even neutrality, from AARP.

Yet the USA Next attacks aim not to convert AARP, but to annihilate it. The ad seems designed to inflame antagonism and discourage negotiation. It ignores the truism that once moderated political rivalry: Any adversary today may be an ally tomorrow.

It’s tempting to view the USA Next attack as an anomaly driven by the group’s desire to expand its market share as a voice for conservative seniors. Yet it fits a larger pattern.

Every year, more of the informal rules that restrained the competition between the parties, the political equivalents of the Geneva Convention, are dissolving. In the past, a group like AARP that criticized a president’s initiative might have expected some return fire from the president’s administration. Now it is a war of all against all, as activists allied with both parties routinely strafe any institution or individual they believe is aiding the other side.

The tone wasn’t nearly as venomous, but it’s worth remembering that the giant liberal online advocacy group MoveOn.org encouraged its members to resign in protest from AARP when the group backed Bush’s prescription drug plan.

The underlying message to AARP from both MoveOn and USA Next is the same: It must choose sides. That pressure tracks the rising criticism of the mainstream media from activists in both parties. On the left and right, the assumption is deepening that in this highly contentious political environment, no one can ever really operate as a neutral broker.

Instead, politics is reduced to a binary choice: news organizations, lobbying groups and centrist legislators searching for common ground are all either with or against you. And when they are against you, they must be overrun by any means necessary.

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“It’s like a religious war,” says John Rother, AARP’s policy director. “If you are not in the same thought camp as they are, then you are the enemy. And it’s actually true on the left as well as the right, but even more on the right.”

The USA Next attacks on AARP so spectacularly set back the cause of restructuring Social Security that they deepen suspicion that conservatives are less interested in striking a deal than provoking a stalemate they can use as an issue in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

When House Republican leaders rejected Bush’s suggestion that he would be open to raising more revenue from the payroll tax -- probably the ante for serious negotiations with Democrats or AARP -- they signaled they might be thinking the same way. Most congressional Democrats seem just as dug in. And liberal activists appear as determined as those on the right to punish anyone on their team who explores compromises.

After four years of bruising partisan warfare under Bush, the two parties simply may not trust each other enough to undertake a change as momentous as reshaping Social Security. If nothing else, the USA Next ads may provide a service by making plain that for many involved in this debate, it already is more about framing future political campaigns than rethinking retirement security.

Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.


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