AARP, the group formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, held a convention last week in Boston. All the candidates for president got invited to speak, but only the Arkansas-related ones, Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee, accepted.
If there's anything that Arkansas politics teaches, it's the value of showing up.
Clinton came because AARP's interests align nicely with her policies. Huckabee came because he seeks to fashion himself as an unconventional Republican, and, well, you might not want to get between him and any podium. It's also true that Huckabee had a special connection, having received an AARP award the year before for raising health consciousness.
Hillary did a little cautious and conventional pandering. Huckabee made a joke and talked glibly and superficially. That is to say that they presented vintage versions of themselves.
AARP may be formally nonpartisan, and, yes, it did side with President Bush on the Medicare prescription drug benefit. But, in general, Democrats please the organization more than Republicans do.
For that reason, and because of celebrity, Hillary commanded a bigger audience. The Boston Globe reported that she spoke in the convention auditorium Friday to 3,200 while another 3,000 watched on television in another hall. Huckabee spoke later to 500 in a meeting room at the adjoining hotel. He was competing with an appearance by those vaunted domestic policy specialists, Joan and Melissa Rivers.
This was Hillary's message:
• She'll take seniors back to the future by restoring the elements of her husband's presidency that imposed fiscal discipline and got us out of the business of borrowing from Social Security to pay for wars and tax cuts for the rich.
• She doesn't believe raising the retirement age or trimming Social Security benefits represent viable options. That was a sideswipe of Barack Obama, who told “Meet the Press” months ago that everything except Social Security privatization needed to be “on the table.”
• She learned from her health reform failures as first lady what to do and not to do, and she will outline Thursday her more practical ideas for achieving universal health insurance.
Obama didn't show up, by the way, because his campaign has established a policy of controlling its own schedule with its own events rather than being dictated to by others. That's probably a mistake, at least in regard to AARP, which will have an Iowa-specific event in Davenport later this month. It's expected to draw Clinton, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd and 2,400 Iowans over 50 and likely caucus-goers — but not, at last report, Obama.
Huckabee got up at his session, flashed his relatively new AARP card and said a Republican at an AARP convention was like Michael Vick at the Westminster dog show.
This is the same one-liner he tossed out at the Ames straw poll — except then it was about being a Republican in Arkansas.
Then he said again — perhaps self-obsessively, considering his own admirable weight loss and personal health and fitness reform — that the country has no health care crisis, but a health crisis.
His story, and he's sticking with it, is that it's not the insurance industry's fault nor the medical profession's, but our own. It's that we need to do as he has done — eat better, lose weight, get exercise — and we'll live with economic efficiency ever after.
It's a fine message except that it does not offer a full remedy.
It's right to tell people to eat salads and work out. It would be smart to insure more forms of preventive care. But none of that will pay a guy's bills if he has the rotten luck or predisposed genes to get badly sick anyway.
Huckabee signed the AARP “Divided We Fall” pact, by which he committed to supporting retirement benefits and expanded health coverage.
None of the other Republican candidates has yet done that for fear of being cast as moderate. Huckabee is either boldly unconventional, the real compassionate conservative, or without much to lose. Or all three.