Pining for the Crackpots of Yore

David Boaz reminds us of an anniversary:

Forty-five years ago yesterday, the actor Ronald Reagan gave a nationally televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater. It came to be known to Reagan fans as “The Speech” and launched his own, more successful political career. […] Would that the current assault on economic freedom would turn up another presidential candidate with Reagan’s values and talents.

Goldwater was running on a strong platform of opposition to Lyndon Johnson’s agenda with regard to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act and thus assembled the following impressive political coalition:

In the speech, Reagan warned that Johnson’s plans to reduce poverty were doomed:


Now — so now we declare “war on poverty,” or “You, too, can be a Bobby Baker.” Now do they honestly expect us to believe that if we add 1 billion dollars to the 45 billion we’re spending, one more program to the 30-odd we have — and remember, this new program doesn’t replace any, it just duplicates existing programs — do they believe that poverty is suddenly going to disappear by magic?

Fortunately, Johnson was re-elected and implemented policies that led to large reductions in the poverty rate:

As you can see, the decline in the poverty rate was most significant among senior citizens. A sign that outside the “war on poverty” per se, other elements of the Johnson agenda like expansion of Social Security (Reagan and Goldwater proposed privatizing it, saying we should “introduce voluntary features that would permit a citizen who can do better on his own to be excused”) and the creation of Medicare. Reagan had warned in 1961, of course, that creating Medicare would lead to tyranny and in the speech Boaz so admires denounced it as a scheme of “forcing all citizens, regardless of need, into a compulsory government program.” When implemented, of course, Medicare proved so popular and effective that Reagan didn’t dare touch it during his eight years in the White house.

He also warned that re-electing Johnson would lead to the triumph of global Communism:

Admittedly, there’s a risk in any course we follow other than this, but every lesson of history tells us that the greater risk lies in appeasement, and this is the specter our well-meaning liberal friends refuse to face — that their policy of accommodation is appeasement, and it gives no choice between peace and war, only between fight or surrender. If we continue to accommodate, continue to back and retreat, eventually we have to face the final demand — the ultimatum. And what then — when Nikita Khrushchev has told his people he knows what our answer will be? He has told them that we’re retreating under the pressure of the Cold War, and someday when the time comes to deliver the final ultimatum, our surrender will be voluntary, because by that time we will have been weakened from within spiritually, morally, and economically. He believes this because from our side he’s heard voices pleading for “peace at any price” or “better Red than dead,” or as one commentator put it, he’d rather “live on his knees than die on his feet.” And therein lies the road to war, because those voices don’t speak for the rest of us.

As it happens, of course, the Johnson administration did make some very serious errors in foreign policy, but they were the reverse of the errors Reagan was warning about. On domestic policy, there were certainly some ideas that didn’t work well. What’s more, though the federal government was not involved in urban crime control policy in a major way, the school of thought to which the architects of Kennedy-Johnson domestic policy belonged made a major error of undue complacency in the face of rising levels of violent crime. But all things considered the record in terms of expanded access to education and health care, racial equality, and poverty reduction looks extremely strong. And, of course, no tyranny emerged! Eventually the Great Society liberals became unpopular and were turned out of office by conservatives who offered a considerably more moderate program than Goldwater’s 1964 agenda.