The Corner

Re: The Buckley Rule

Neal Freeman, the legendary longtime NR contributor, is out with a piece on the home page about the “Buckley Rule,” in which he recalls that William F. Buckley’s dictum — to support the most viable conservative candidate — led NR to support Goldwater over Rockefeller in 1964. To Freeman, the choice of Goldwater over Rockefeller proves the virtue of the Buckley Rule:

Bill Buckley was careful with words. If he had opted on that June day for the words “rightwardmost electable candidate,” we would all have recognized it as a victory for Team Rockefeller. And life might look very different today. If there had been no Goldwater, National Review might not have become so influential, and if there had been no Goldwater, no National Review, there might have been no Reagan.

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.

UPDATE: A number of the commenters make the very plausible case that Rockefeller would have lost also, because the country was awash in sympathy for the Kennedy assassination. I wasn’t alive then, so others are in a better position to say. However, it is certainly true that anti-Goldwater sentiment led Democrats to achieve far larger majorities in Congress than they would have otherwise; the resultant electoral rebuke led many Republicans—who had been resisting Medicare up to that point—to go along with the plan. Here is my account of the history of Medicare’s passage, from the Summer 2011 issue of National Affairs:


The 1964 election, which many on the right fondly recall as the dawn of modern conservatism, was in fact the greatest victory for the left in American history. Democrats gained 36 seats in the House of Representatives — giving them an astonishing 155-seat majority — and increased their already huge Senate majority by two seats, nudging them up to a 36-seat majority. (By comparison, the substantial Democratic majorities held after the 2008 election were merely 79 seats in the House and 20 seats in the Senate.) Even taking conservative-leaning Democrats into account, liberals were utterly in control of Washington in 1965. Suddenly, Democrats found themselves with a mandate to enact far-reaching reforms, and they did not waste the opportunity.

The very first bill of the 1965 congressional session — H.R. 1 in the House and S 1 in the Senate — was titled “Hospital Insurance for the Aged through Social Security.” The focus on hospital insurance reflected the fact that hospitalization costs represented the greatest financial burden on the elderly at the time. As the so-called “Medi-care” bill zipped through Congress, Republican leaders, still reeling and disoriented from their painful defeat, criticized the proposal from the left, arguing that the legislation was inadequate because it covered neither physician services nor prescription drugs.

They proposed instead a more comprehensive but voluntary plan, comparable to the one that was at the time administered by Aetna for federal employees. But Democrats were perfectly happy to accommodate these objections within their more ambitious non-voluntary program, and the final bill included a new entitlement composed of two Medicare programs for the elderly — Part A and Part B — along with a separate health-care entitlement for the poor called Medicaid.

Avik Roy is the President of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (, a non-partisan, non-profit think tank.

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