WHEN Barry Goldwater floated out the notion that Social Security should be made voluntary, he put the fear of destitution into his most dedicated supporters and doomed his 1964 campaign. Ross Perot may have just done the same thing.
It began innocently enough, with his seemingly generous suggestion that "people like me" should pay taxes on Social Security benefits. Apparently he was ignorant of the fact that the highest earners over 65 have, for the past eight years, been paying taxes on half their Social Security benefits.
Then Mr. Perot boasted he could save $20 billion a year through his soak-the-elderly-rich approach. However, it turned out that -- using the most recent figures available, in 1988 -- that this would cut off all benefits to older couples with a household income of $60,000 or more. These people do not deserve to be penalized now for a lifetime's work and thrift.
He then went on the "Today" show for the sort of powder-puff questioning he likes from call-ins, but one of his own supporters, a retiree named Roberta, from Vero Beach, Fla., said she had been "shocked" at his proposal.
The good-ol'-boy veneer peeled away and Mr. Perot lashed out at those who supplied the factual consequences to his proposal. He accused "some squirrel over there in OMB trying to con the press to do a gotcha on me" and complained that 1988 figures were "false and phony." He gave the impression that current figures would radically change the result.
But Social Security Administration squirrels inform me that to raise $20 billion from Social Security, the Perot cutoff point today would be $62,000; throw in denial of Medicare, and you come up to $75,000 per couple. The critics did not mislead. Because Perot does not like the consequences, he attacks truthful statisticians.
He revealed his basic misconception of Social Security: "Now the real test is who needs it and who doesn't need it." In plain Texas talk, that espouses a means test -- which won't be pretty. If words have meaning, Mr. Perot treats Social Security insurance as a form of welfare: you should get it only if you need it.
After he danced away from Roberta's question, singing a snatch from the hit song from "Annie," the hostess Katherine Couric -- no pushover -- encouraged the caller to follow up with "Are you satisfied with that answer?" The woman replied honestly: "Well, he didn't really answer the question."
Flustered at being pinned down, Mr. Perot denied the consequences of his $20 billion benefits slash, and -- to take the pressure off -- came up with a variation on his scheme. "I would first ask them to voluntarily give it up." Irritably, he demanded: "Do you have any problem with that?"
Roberta from Vero Beach, not the dope that the contemptuous candidate thought she was, started to express her skepticism, but Mr. Perot cut her off with his definition of "voluntarily": "If that will help, I'll give it up." So much for callers-in who cross the Ross.
Think about Mr. Perot's proposal: The U.S. government would "first" ask many elderly couples to give up Social Security benefits they have been paying for throughout a working life, and give up Medicare as well. And if they have a problem with that, perhaps preferring to give their checks to their children, you can guess what comes "second": The give-up becomes mandatory.
He's talking about means-testing Social Security -- "the real test is who needs it" -- thereby double-crossing retired workers who built up savings for retirement. But FDR designed Social Security as an insurance system, not a welfare system, and as Sen. Pat Moynihan says, "A means test would turn a trust fund into a slush fund."
The Quayle-Bush campaign has not yet developed a quick reaction to gaffes, but Bill Clinton, after first dismissing the Perot ideas as "kind of goofy" and asserting "I would not means-test the benefits," soon focused more clearly on the Perot plan as "a full-scale assault on the Social Security system, undermining the universality of the program."
Retirees should not be made to feel shame or guilt for receiving benefits of paid-up insurance. Those who choose to give away their Social Security benefits can find plenty of worthwhile charities; the U.S. Treasury should not be one of them.
William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.