Tea Party Geezers Revolt Against AARP

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 10:04 AM EST

Today is the day that aging Tea Partiers across the country are supposed to burn their AARP cards to protest the group’s support for health care reform. At least, that's what one right-wing blogger is encouraging them to do. Last week, self-described "Tea Party Patriot" Sam Mela announced the "1st Tea Party Winter Fest for Health Care Freedom & AARP Card Burning":

The Tea Party Movement is initiating a nation-wide AARP Card Burning, on the first day of winter, December 21, 2009. This is in response to AARP’s duplicitous stance in support of Congress’ attempted thievery of ample health care away from the American people. This response is being called for due to the fact that Congress has turned a deaf ear to the will of the American people, one of the most vulnerable groups of our society, our American Seniors….

Don’t forget your lighters, AARP cards and any other AARP printed material/mailings; home made cards a/or signs…you could even dress up like Santa, or his elves, Scrooge, Tiny Tim, whatever your favorite Christmas character…don’t forget your cameras & video recorders! If YOU don’t send this message NOW, the die will be cast!

It seems unlikely that more than a few stragglers will turn out in Santa suits today to torch their membership cards (and a good thing, too, since as one of my the readers of my Unsilent Generation blog pointed out, the cards are plastic, so they won't burn so much as "melt and make a big stink"). When a West Virginia Tea Party organizer called for a day of AARP card burnings earlier this month, the only reports were of a half-dozen protesters huddled around a fire in Charleston. But this hasn’t stopped Republican politicians from picking up the battle cry. John McCain recently urged AARP members to trash their cards both in Arizona speeches and on the Senate floor. (To his credit, McCain told them to cut the cards in half and send them back to AARP, rather than burn them.) 

None of this represents much of a threat to AARP. Although the group has lost tens of thousands of members over the health care reform issue, that’s a tiny fraction of its 45 million total. President Obama and Democratic senators have been making much of AARP’s support for the reform legislation, leading Sam Mela, in a post yesterday, to lament the fact that "in terms of Public Relations and Public Perception, the AARP has been able to steamroll over the Tea Party movement, without encountering even token resistance, although it would have been a simple matter for the Tea Partiers to neutralize them at any time."

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Yet the behemoth group seems equally worried about losing the PR war over this highly divisive issue. At a press briefing in October, one AARP executive said that despite expending significant resources, the organization had been unable to unite its membership, while another declared, "We face a communications challenge." A conservative  group, the American Seniors Association, is exploiting the opportunity, offering half-price memberships to anyone who mails in their cut up AARP card. Polls consistently show the strongest opposition to health care reform comes from the over-65 crowd. And Stephanie Mencimer, who's been reporting on the Tea Partiers here for some time now, tells me that older people are heavily over-represented at their rallies and protests.

Unlike most reporters covering the subject, I am a member of the age group in question. But that doesn't mean I get what this resistance is all about. Or rather, I understand there being resistance--but it seems to me like it’s for all the wrong reasons. I've been plenty critical myself of AARP for their cozy, lucrative partnership with the health insurance industry. And I get testy when I hear about big cuts to Medicare, knowing that the “reform” will only increase the profits of insurance and drug companies. But the reform bill throws seniors a few crumbs, which is about all it does for anyone else. And it’s no threat at all compared with the Republican dreams of remaking Medicare on a privatized model, along the lines of Bush’s Part D prescription drug program. 

Beyond these details, there remains the strange fact that all this resistance comes from right-wing old folks, who enjoy the only single-payer health care program this nation has ever known. As another reader pointed out, "Courage would require that they burn their Medicare Cards and renounce that socialism rather than a meaningless protest against a non-governmental organization."

Like the now-famous town hall geezer who told his Congressman to "Keep your government hands off my Medicare," there’s some pretty nutty self-contradiction in the comments I’ve seen on the AARP revolt. One response to Sam Mela's card-burning blog post attacked the organization for being both a left-wing front and a corporate stooge: "I never have trusted this socialist organization that makes its money off of insurance commissions on its members."

There may be half a grain of truth in this analysis. But somehow, it's the red menace part that always seem to stick, while the real enemies of decent, affordable health care get a free pass.  In the end, I guess, it all boils down the way it usually does in America: While a divided citizenry haggles over crumbs, the private companies take the cake.

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