September 12, 2017

“Barry Goldwater wants to take your Social Security away”



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In 1964 Barry Goldwater was the Republican Party's nominee for president. He was running against one of the most ruthless and dishonest politicians of his time, so naturally, in a country that cherishes honor, character, and honesty, Goldwater lost.

One of the reasons that he lost was that his opponent and his opponent's surrogates repeatedly told the American people that the Arizona senator wanted to take away their Social Security. This was a threat that struck terror in the hearts even of those of the so-called Greatest Generation. It was so successful a lie, that it was repeated over and over in countless later campaigns, nearly always distorting the positions of other candidates, and in some cases putting an end to their political aspirations. According to Democrats, the one thing you could count on Republicans to do was to end Social Security.

In my circles and family at the time, our response was, "We should be so lucky." In fact we knew that Goldwater would not end Social Security. In the first place, he couldn't even if he wanted to. Social Security exists by act of Congress. The president can do all sorts of things, but he cannot repeal an act of Congress, at least not legally.

In the second place, Goldwater said repeatedly that he did not want to repeal Social Security. In August 1964, no less an authority than the New York Times reported that he favored "strengthening" Social Security. A campaign brochure said that he wanted "to see every participant receive all the benefits [the] system provides," and that he believed that Social Security had "a vital and legitimate supporting role."

In what was surely one of the most influential speeches of the 20th century, "A Time for Choosing," Ronald Reagan, speaking for Goldwater, said, "We're for a provision that destitution should not follow unemployment by reason of old age, and to that end we've accepted Social Security as a step toward meeting the problem. But we're opposed to those entrusted with this program when they practice deception regarding its fiscal shortcomings, and when they charge that any criticism of the program means that we want to end payments to those people who depend on them for a livelihood." Reagan went on to outline some of the reforms to the system that Goldwater had proposed, including that participation in it be made voluntary. It was that feature of Goldwater's proposals, perhaps more than any other, that so alarmed his opponents that they predicted a collapse more horrible to contemplate than an invasion by the armies of Gog and Magog.

In those days and many that followed it was actually possible to believe that someone in politics — even if it wasn't Goldwater — might really want to end Social Security. But we have since been assured over and over by virtually every candidate for federal office that nothing was dearer to his heart than the health and well-being of Social Security. With Alan Greenspan's help, Reagan himself managed to push through an increase in the Social Security tax in order to build up a reserve in the so-called trust fund.

At the beginning of the presidency of George W. Bush there was more talk of "privatizing Social Security" by permitting certain kinds of dividends from approved investments to replace or supplement government-issued benefits. That talk never envisioned ending the program, but it did envisage festooning it with more options. The greatest fear expressed was, "What if the market should fail?" and, almost as if the market itself feared the influx of funds from more or less voluntary investments, it failed, and that was the end of that discussion. (The "market" was later rewarded by enjoying even greater influxes of capital from the Federal Reserve as a result of efforts to prop up the failed economy, but that is another story.)

During the 2008 debates between Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, and in campaign ads, the former repeatedly said that he did not support mandatory participation in the health-care plan he would propose to Congress, and the latter repeatedly stated that mandatory participation was necessary for any plan that aimed at universal coverage to work. Although Mrs. Clinton lost the nomination, she apparently won that debate, for mandatory participation certainly became a famous component of the plan ultimately submitted and passed. Apparently also, mandatory participation is always going to be a feature in programs that promise to benefit all Americans.

When Paul Ryan's proposed health-care reform bill failed in Congress, Sen. Chuck Schumer stated that Democrats are willing to work with Republicans in crafting reforms to the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — "once the Republicans take repeal off the table."

Why have I rehearsed all this dreary business? It is because it leads me to a dreary forecast.

The Republicans in Congress have shown us that they have no more heart for repealing every jot and tittle of Obamacare than their predecessors had for repealing Social Security. We should probably be steeling ourselves for the time that Obamacare becomes another "third rail" in American politics and the GOP includes in its platforms assurances that it desires nothing more in this vale of tears than to strengthen Obamacare and to protect it, for the benefit of all Americans. Perhaps in his later years, Mr. Obama, recalling Franklin Roosevelt on Social Security, may say to himself with ruthless satisfaction, "No damn politicians can ever scrap my Affordable Care Act." And when some future president proposes a massive new medical program supplementing all the existing legislation, perhaps there will even be a vocal, grassroots organization rising up suddenly and out of nowhere to demand that government "keep its hands off my Obamacare."

There are many among us who may yet hope not to live to see the day when I am proved right. But the evil in this world sometimes comes upon us more quickly than we ever thought possible. Ω

September 12, 2017

© 2017 Paul LeMoyne
Published in 2017 by WTM Enterprises.

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