While Democratic lawmakers rip up their AARP membership cards and decry the group’s decision to back the Medicare bill that eventually passed Congress, long-time observers of politics have seen it before. [IMGCAP(1)]
AARP isn’t the only interest group to show some independence recently — it’s merely following in the steps of the American Medical Association and the Teamsters, both of which “changed teams” over an issue before ultimately reverting to their previous political alliances.
True, few interest groups show great partisan or ideological independence. Instead, they tend to be in the hip pocket of one party or the other.
It’s hard to imagine the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees or the League of Conservation Voters, for example, endorsing a major GOP legislative initiative or a Republican presidential nominee. Their political action committees sometimes endorse Republican candidates for office, of course, but that is as far as they will go.
It’s just as rare for the National Federation of Independent Business or Americans for Tax Reform to lead the charge in support of a bill introduced by House or Senate Democratic leaders or to support the Democratic nominee for president.
But other influential interest groups are less ideological and have been less predictable from time to time.
While the AMA has long been regarded as more sympathetic to Republican doctrine, that didn’t stop it from supporting a strong patients’ bill of rights a few years ago when Congressional Democrats proposed such legislation.
Republicans (including some GOP physicians who were members of the AMA) were irate that the doctors’ group would side with Democrats and trial lawyers — even change its PAC campaign contribution patterns — over a single issue. But for a time, that issue topped the AMA membership’s agenda (pitting doctors against HMOs and insurance companies), so it’s not surprising that the organization would view the parties differently than in the past.
Of course, the doctors’ group changed its priorities again a couple years ago from a patients’ bill of rights to medical malpractice liability, causing it to tilt strongly back toward the GOP in its contribution patterns.
The Teamsters have also played the political game of independence well. While it has usually sided with Congressional Democrats and other unions on matters involving taxes, government spending, labor organizing issues and the like, it has preferred the GOP’s view on some jobs/environmental issues, including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the union views as a jobs issue.
While some Republicans speculated about the possibility that President Bush could win the Teamsters’ endorsement for his re-election bid, the union has returned to its Democratic roots by throwing itself behind Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (Mo.) presidential candidacy.
In the short term, the AARP is likely to take more heat from Democrats, both within the organization and outside it, for supporting a measure backed by most Republicans on Capitol Hill, the White House and many business groups.
But Democrats ought to think twice about buying into an orchestrated campaign to discredit the AARP, which isn’t likely to become a reliable Republican ally. Instead, it is likely to ask more from government, almost certainly bringing it once again in conflict with a Republican Party that believes it went far enough (maybe even farther than many wanted to go) in establishing a drug benefit for seniors.
In the case of this year’s Medicare bill, AARP leaders merely concluded that, with its new drug benefit, it was better than the alternative: nothing. That should hardly be heresy, unless of course, you are one of those people — or interest groups — who look at health care and Capitol Hill as a zero-sum game and primarily in partisan terms.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.