Social Security Debate Takes Nasty Turn


WASHINGTON, Feb. 28, 2005 — -- Those hoping that the political debate over Social Security would remain lofty and logical should prepare for a more down-and-dirty fight being waged by both the left and the right.

Perhaps most notably, some of the Republicans behind the controversial Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads that challenged the war record of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry are now targeting AARP, an advocacy group for people age 50 and older, for opposing President Bush's plan for Social Security reform.

The group, called USA Next, claims AARP's real agenda is anti-military and pro-gay marriage. An Internet ad featuring such claims was the opening salvo in a $10 million campaign to support Bush's policy and discredit its opponents.

"AARP is one of the planet's largest, left, liberal lobbying organizations," said Charlie Jarvis, chairman and chief executive of USA Next, and a former official in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

AARP would not comment. However, the charge that it is anti-military may be based on the fact that the seniors' advocacy group does not take positions on veterans' issues.

The claim that AARP is in favor of same-sex marriage apparently stems from the Ohio chapter's objection to that state's ban on same-sex marriage. AARP says it opposed the law because it was broad enough to also affect unmarried heterosexual retirees who live together.

With more than 35 million members, AARP is one of Washington's most powerful lobbies -- which is why the Bush administration was delighted when, in 2002, the group threw its support behind the president's Medicare prescription drug benefit bill.

USA Next acknowledges it has a larger goal: Just as the "Swift Boat" ads challenged Kerry's integrity and honesty, "that's exactly what we're doing with AARP," said Jarvis. "We're going to do everything we can to remove them as an obstacle to personal retirement accounts and Social Security."

But the group's tactics have raised concerns among some other conservatives.

"We need to be focused on the benefits of individual accounts -- the ownership and control that it gives workers," said Michael Tanner, director of the Cato Institute's Project on Social Security Choice. "We shouldn't be dealing with extraneous issues like homophobia or any other bigoted message."

Liberal interest groups are also using tough tactics, including a television commercial that accuses Republican Rep. James McCrery of Louisiana, the chairman of the Congressional Social Security Subcommittee, of supporting the president's plan because, they allege, he's in the pocket of bankers and investors. In a TV ad scheduled to begin airing in McCrery's district Monday, the liberal Campaign for America's Future calls McCrery's position a "typical Washington snow job."

"Congressman McCrery wants to privatize Social Security and cut our guaranteed benefits after taking campaign money from the very Wall Street firms that'd profit from privatization," the ad says. "Maybe Jim McCrery's been in Washington so long, he forgot who he works for!"

It's not surprising that the rhetoric has become so heated, said John Harwood, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

"When you're playing for high stakes like we are in the Social Security debate, it's inevitable that each side is going to use very inflammatory tactics. And we're seeing that from the left as well as the right," he said.

By not responding to the ad, AARP is trying to not elevate its attackers by answering their charges -- a tactic that did not work for Kerry. It remains to be seen if it will work for AARP.

ABC News' Marc Ambinder contributed to this report.