Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s promising presidential campaign may be haunted by a ghost, the ghost of Barry Goldwater.
In 1964, early in his presidential campaign, Goldwater criticized Social Security but later backed away from his comments after his Republican opponents and the press jumped all over him. Perry now finds himself in a similar position. His characterization of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” captured the media’s attention, hurt his standing in the polls, and provided an opening for his Republican challengers. Like Goldwater, Perry retreated from his initial attack on Social Security. He is now stressing the need to shore up the program, and he is reassuring seniors that their benefits are a “slam dunk” guarantee.
But if the history of the Goldwater campaign is any guide—Goldwater managed to win the Republican nomination but lost in a landslide to Democratic President Lyndon Johnson—Perry may not be able to overcome his past attacks on Social Security no matter how hard he tries.
Goldwater’s opposition to the New Deal and his criticism of its centerpiece program of old age insurance marked his rise as a leading conservative Republican. His first public political statement was an open letter to President Franklin Roosevelt decrying New Deal economic policies. As a young Republican senator in the 1950s, Goldwater criticized Republican President Dwight Eisenhower for failing to dismantle the welfare state. In his 1960 political treatise The Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater referred to the New Deal as “Socialism-through-Welfarism” and called for its repeal, including its “social welfare programs.”
But Goldwater’s opposition to Social Security was a major liability during his 1964 presidential campaign.
In his first trip to New Hampshire as a presidential candidate, Goldwater told a group of reporters that he thought Social Security should be made voluntary. Seeing blood in the water, his Republican challengers and the news media attacked, accusing him of trying to bankrupt the program and deprive retirees of their benefits. Sensing how damaging his statement had been, Goldwater tried to steer clear of the issue and even went out his way to remind people that as a senator he had voted to increase Social Security benefits.
Thanks to a vibrant grass roots campaign among conservatives, Goldwater was able to capture the party’s presidential nomination, but his disparaging remarks about Social Security stuck and hurt his chances in the general election.
Perhaps most damaging to Goldwater’s campaign was a Johnson television commercial featuring two hands ripping up a Social Security card, with a concerned voice in the background saying Goldwater would “wreck your Social Security.” Johnson’s infamous “Daisy Girl” television spot, which suggested, with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, that a Goldwater presidency could lead to nuclear war, grabbed newspaper headlines at the time and the attention of historians ever since. But Johnson’s Social Security commercial was equally, if not more, effective in swaying voters. The Democrats’ television campaign was so successful that even some local Republican organizers assailed Goldwater for his position on Social Security.
Goldwater’s criticism of Social Security was not the sole reason he lost to Johnson, but it certainly contributed to Johnson’s overwhelming victory. In the election Johnson captured a record 61 percent of the vote and every state except five Deep South states and Goldwater’s home state of Arizona. Goldwater’s pollster Thomas Benham found that Goldwater’s perceived opposition to Social Security was one of the keys to Johnson’s victory. According to Benham, Goldwater’s position on Social Security was a “serious liability” with “many millions of voters—particularly the elderly and union voters” convinced that Goldwater was a “foe of the Social Security system.”
Despite his best efforts, Goldwater utterly failed to counter the initial perception that he was an enemy of Social Security, and the charge dogged him for the entire campaign.
This brings us back to Rick Perry. Perry is doing what he can to exorcise the ghost of Barry Goldwater: toning down his rhetorical attacks against Social Security, focusing on the need to reform the program to make it more financially secure, and trying hard to change the subject. But, as the history of the Goldwater campaign suggests, it won’t be easy. With polls indicating that Perry’s position on Social Security makes voters less likely to vote for him and less confident about his chances in November, Perry’s Republican opponents will continue to summon Goldwater’s ghost.
In the end, Goldwater’s ghost may scare off enough voters to wreck Perry’s presidential campaign.
Mark Nevin is an assistant professor of history at Ohio University-Lancaster. He is working on a book about the Nixon presidency and the politics of public opinion polling.