Fight 2005: Bush vs. the Elderly

Seniors helped Bush to victory in 2004, but they’re not too thrilled about his plans for Social Security.


In the 2004 presidential election, the 60 and older crowd handed Bush the greatest margin of victory of any age group and helped offset Kerry’s strong showing with young voters. (Bush improved his 2000 share of the senior vote by 7 points.) Consequently, you might expect Bush’s second-term agenda to include senior-focused benefits like legalizing the importation of cheaper prescription drugs, increasing job opportunities for seniors displaced in today’s economy, and expanding day-to-day perks like the early- bird supper special and cheaper movie tickets. Instead, Bush has decided to reform (read: stealthily and steadily dismantle) the granddaddy of FDR’s social welfare state, Social Security.

You can’t say that he didn’t give fair warning. Bush has touted his plan for partial (at least at first) privatization of social security reform (i.e. privatization) since he ran against Al Gore and his lock- box. And now, interpreting a narrow reelection victory, as a broad mandate, the president aims to radically reorganize the way America provides for its seniors. Never mind that a recently released NBC/WSJ poll shows that only 35 percent think “Bush has a mandate to allow workers to invest some of their Social Security taxes into the stock market.” Nor that, as Democratic pollster Jay Campbell contends, “[Republicans] have a massive battle on their hands … it will certainly be as big of a fight as everyone expects it to be.”

Leading this fight are America’s seniors. They pose the greatest obstacle to Bush’s privatization plan because they vote in large numbers and their advocacy groups possess the resources needed in a battle of this magnitude. While Bush can surely snub labor organizations and other groups outside his constituency, seniors constitute one of his strongest bases of support. Led by the AARP, which recently issued a letter to its 35 million members calling Social Security “the most successful program in our nation’s history,” seniors themselves are mobilizing to fight for the program they currently depend upon. George J. Kourpias, president of the three million-member Alliance for Retired Americans, captures the deeper significance of the debate and the resolve of seniors to beat Bush on this issue:

We’re fighting this fight not just for ourselves, but for our children and especially for our grandchildren. We can’t leave a legacy of debt and that’s what privatization is designed to do. It will bleed to death the current Social Security system, drive up already record-high deficits and pass on monstrous debt to future generations.

We believe all Americans should count on Social Security’s guaranteed benefits as one means to achieving financial security. Creating private accounts by radically changing the way America provides for its own is simply a betrayal of trust. We are prepared to fight to preserve our financial security.

Hey, they’re called active seniors for a reason. So far, though, Bush and his supporters are largely ignoring senior citizen’s political strength in their push toward privatization. What’s more, the legitimate objections from seniors are completely misunderstood. In an economic conference at the White House before the holiday break, former Democratic congressman Tim Penny (Bush loves to recruit retired/estranged Democrats to trumpet his programs) drew laughter when he derisively stated that seniors have nothing to worry about and the program does not concern them:

[W]hen you talk about reform that includes personal accounts, it’s strongly favored by everyone that currently is ineligible to join the AARP.

And it seems to me this is really who we’re talking about, because, as you’ve said, we’re not talking about any changes in the near-term; people who are eligible to join the AARP today are going to be protected under the traditional system. But we ought to, on a voluntary basis, give people working today the option of pre-funding part of their retirement, and then owning that retirement in a way that the government can’t take it away from them.

Yet this is precisely the reason many seniors object to privatizing Social Security. They live the issue and understand the importance of guaranteeing benefits for future generations by buttressing the system without relying on the unpredictability of the stock market to do it. A genuine concern for the future of Social Security, more than the perceived threat to current benefits, is the driving force behind their opposition. “If there’s one issue our members are united on, this is it,” notes John Rother, legislation and public policy director for AARP, and he warns that AARP will be “very visible and very aggressive” as the debate heats up in the Congress.

The leadership of AARP, which was roundly criticized by its members for backing Bush’s Medicare prescription drugs plan, needs this victory as well. Yesterday, they announced a $5 million campaign using two full-page ads in roughly 50 newspapers nationwide. One of the ads shows Wall Street traders with the tagline, “Winners and losers are stock market terms. Do you really want them to become retirement terms?” The other displays a couple saying, “If we feel like gambling, we’ll play the slots.” An effective start, in both financial commitment and message, but it will take an unyielding and calculated campaign to counter the chorus in the mainstream media which continues to misrepresent Bush’s plan as needed “reform” for a “broken” system. Such a campaign is mounting behind a coalition including the AARP, the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, NOW, and other prominent progressive groups. Yet, not surprisingly, as Eric Alterman recently noted, the Bush administration is in the media tarring privatization’s opponents and using the airwaves as its primary weapon:

Once again, we are expected to take the Bush administration’s intentions, competence and veracity on faith; once again, reporters are assisting in the creation of a fictional universe in which ‘reality’ only rears its head after the damage done to those least able to bear it is permanent and irreversible.

Yet this might represent Bush’s biggest mistake. In these early stages of debate, Bush frames his plan for privatization by stressing support from younger Americans. Like former congressman Perry, Bush blatantly disregards seniors, both their loyalty and determination to fight for the current system. More than anything, these seniors need a media platform — their intimate understanding and passionate defense of Social Security can awaken the country to understand its importance, current strength and, ultimately, the threat Bush poses to its future.