Frederick Lynch, an expert on the politics of aging at Claremont McKenna College and author of One Nation Under AARP: The Fight Over Medicare, Social Security, and America’s Future, argues that AARP's relatively neutral approach in its “Take A Stand” campaign reflects the “fundamental conflict” between its brand as a purveyor of services for older Americans and its historic role as a defender of seniors’ policy priorities.
“They want to be the Consumer Reports of health and services for seniors,” said Lynch, who encouraged AARP to come out forcefully against Social Security cuts in 2011. “But the minute they get partisan, they’re gonna lose some people. So there is sort of a tug of war between their trust brand -- the Good Housekeeping 'Seal of Approval'" and being more of an advocacy-oriented organization.
Since some AARP members reportedly left the group after it backed the Affordable Care Act -- which included Medicare cost savings that many seniors viewed as benefit cuts -- the organization has likely become more cautious, Lynch suggested.
Lynch says that AARP was more willing to advance a position on controversial issues under the leadership of William Novelli, who ran the organization from 2001 to 2009.
Under Novelli, AARP supported the creation of Medicare’s prescription drug program in 2003, and opposed President George W. Bush’s attempts to privatize Social Security in 2005. Under CEO Barry Rand, it also notably backed the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Lynch worries that if AARP does not step up as a major opponent of benefit cuts, it risks ceding ground to less scrupulous groups and individuals like Trump, who is clearly appealing to the economic and cultural insecurities of the same Baby Boomers who make up a disproportionate share of the organization’s membership, according to Lynch.
“Trump is representative of Boomer politics,” Lynch said. “The fact that he immediately took Medicare and Social Security off the table has increased his strength.”
That would be a shame, Lynch argues, since if there is one organization capable of uniting Boomers across racial and class lines and turning them into a cohesive political force, it's AARP.
“AARP is the 900-pound gorilla,” Lynch said. “There really is nobody else.”