In the punch-for-punch debate over Social Security, AARP is working hard to keep the White House on the ropes.
When President Bush arrives in Iowa today to talk up his private-accounts proposal, the senior citizens group plans to counter him with two news conferences, the release of a national poll, full-page newspaper advertisements and commercials on radio and television.
Over this week and last, AARP, the nation's largest lobby, will have spent more than $5 million on ads attacking the president's Social Security plan -- nearly three times as much as all the supporters of his proposal put together. That's just for starters.
Every state that has a swing-vote senator will have AARP forums, which have been drawing about 300 people each. And every time a member of Congress holds a town meeting, AARP volunteers are dispatched there to protest the president's plan for individual accounts.
"We're going to do this as long as it takes," said William D. Novelli, AARP's chief executive. "We will put just about everything we have into it."
No organization has more tools or more money to wage such a battle. So both its friends and adversaries agree: AARP holds the key to how or whether Social Security will be restructured this year. "It will be very difficult to do anything without AARP's support," said Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "And it would be a heck of a lot easier if they came along."
AARP's 35 million membership base is 10 times the size of the National Rifle Association's, and its $800 million budget is five times that of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the country's biggest business association. In number of members, AARP is surpassed only by the Roman Catholic Church.
Some polls show that a majority of voters reject Bush's plan to make investment accounts part of the retirement program, a result that can be attributed in part to AARP's persuasiveness. "We're behind the curve right now," said Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), a Bush ally and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee's Social Security subcommittee. "The momentum is with the other team."
As head of that team, Novelli works 13-hour days packed with visits to Capitol Hill and the White House, where he is, by turns, berated for his position but probed to see where he might compromise.
Bush has bashed as "scare tactics" commercials by AARP and like-minded groups, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) called AARP "incredibly irresponsible" for rejecting "a solution that hasn't even been written yet." Yet behind the scenes, Novelli and his staff have been consulting with Bush aides Karl Rove and Allan Hubbard about finding common ground, and talking with congressional leaders of both parties.