No, The Goldwater Campaign In 1964 Did Not Lead To LBJ’s Great Society

Avik Roy, commenting on Neal Freeman’s post about the Buckley Rule, attempts to refute the conventional wisdom that support for Barry Goldwater in 1964 was a good thing:

This “Goldwater’s defeat begat Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement” thesis is common among a certain vintage of conservative thinkers, all of whom are wiser than I. But it’s worth pointing out that the landslide defeat of Goldwater to Lyndon Johnson led to the enactment of the Great Society, and most notably, Medicare and Medicaid. In other words, the very fiscal crisis we face today — for which, at our most courageous, we recommend but modest reforms — was a direct result of the disastrous Goldwater campaign.
We may all prefer the policies of Goldwater to those of Rockefeller. But it’s at least debatable whether or not the conservative movement was better off, or worse off, for having nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964. Indeed, the 1964 election may be the most salient example of what happens when we don’t pick the most conservative candidate who can win.

In an update to his post, he deals with one criticism: That it was impossible for the GOP to have won the White House in 1964, so soon after the assassination of JFK. His claim is that the Democrats found themselves with such large majorities in the House and Senate in 1964 that they could do essentially whatever they wanted, and this allowed them to pass LBJ’s Great Society programs. Presumably, if the GOP had run a better presidential campaign, it might have put the House and Senate in play and jeopardized LBJ’s plans.

The problem with his thesis is that the Democrats already had (by his count) a 119 seat majority in the House, and a 34 seat majority in the Senate. In the years between 1932 and 1964, the GOP held control over both houses for only two sessions (1946-48 and 1952-54). Under what scenario could the GOP have captured either the House or Senate in 1964? It would have required a much better candidate than either Nelson Rockefeller or Barry Goldwater, and a much better political climate for the GOP to have pulled off such a feat. LBJ was going to pass his Great Society programs regardless of who the GOP nominee was.

However, there is a more compelling reason why Avik Roy is wrong. In 1964, the GOP faced a binary choice between Rockefeller and Goldwater, as Richard Nixon did not run that year. It is worth remembering that though Nixon was not all that conservative, he was much more conservative than Rockefeller and felt little kinship with the Rockefeller wing of the GOP. Yet, when Nixon became president in 1968, in many ways he expanded upon LBJ’s Great Society agenda. Indeed, Nixon wanted to strengthen Medicaid, and was an early advocate of exactly the kind of health care mandate which was passed in Obamacare. Do not forget that Nixon also instituted wage and price controls, took the dollar off the gold standard, and formed the DEA, EPA, and OSHA.

We cannot know what Nelson Rockefeller would have done, had he become president. However, as governor of New York, he worked hard to expand the state government in nearly every area. Would a Rockefeller presidency have been much different than that of Lyndon Johnson’s? That is hard to say. In many respects, when it came to the issues, it is hard to find much difference between the policies espoused by Rockefeller and Johnson prior to 1964. One might claim that Rockefeller never espoused support for anything like LBJ’s Great Society programs when he was governor. But this argument does not mean much, as neither had LBJ when he was in the Senate or when he was Vice President. People tend to change when they become president, when they have a legacy at stake. We also know that Rockefeller refused to support Barry Goldwater in 1964, after Goldwater won the nomination. While this does not necessarily mean that Rockefeller supported LBJ, it surely means that he was reconciled to the idea that LBJ represented the lesser of two evils. Certainly, Rockefeller would have been a more liberal president than Nixon, and Nixon, instead of attempting to roll back LBJ’s programs, actually expanded upon them to a small degree.

Rockefeller was one of the earliest advocates of abortion on demand, and the law he drafted in New York on abortion became the model for the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade. In 1964, Rockefeller’s campaign was derailed not by Buckley or the National Review, but by accusations of marital infidelity, and indeed Rockefeller famously died in 1979 while with a woman who was not his wife.

All in all, it is very difficult to think that a conservative would have or should have supported Rockefeller in 1964 (or ever), that such support would have made any difference at all in the general election, or that Rockefeller would have been better than LBJ as president. It is also an open question as to whether, as president, Rockefeller would have instituted his own Great Society program, or something even worse.

So no, Goldwater’s disastrous showing in 1964 did not lead to the Great Society, and if this is to be an example of why conservatives should support liberals in the name of partisan solidarity, this example falls flat.

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1 Response to No, The Goldwater Campaign In 1964 Did Not Lead To LBJ’s Great Society

  1. Pingback: Two words that changed LBJ’s life | Call of the Siren

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