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“”I have just one purpose, and that is to build up a strong progressive Republican Party in this country. If the right-wing wants a fight, they are going to get it... before I end up, either this Republican Party will reflect progressivism or I won't be with them anymore.
Rockefeller Republican (named after former New York Governor and Ford's Vice President Nelson Rockefeller of the Rockefeller family) was a euphemism used to describe members of the moderate wing of the Republican Party. They were the dominant force in the party from the end of World War II until 1964, when the party's conservative elements backed Barry Goldwater for President and did lasting damage to its influence, but remained a powerful wing of the GOP until the late '70s and the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan.
During the New Deal Consensus, Rockefeller Republicans were typically defined as center right on many of the economic issues of the day. Economically they were opposed to the economic system of social democracy along with the rhetoric of socialism, but they still supported the basic framework of the New Deal as integral parts of a capitalist system. They were strong supporters of Wall Street and big business; many of their ranks came from the worlds of business and finance. This also drove their fiscal issue stances because they believed in strong public investments in education, health care, infrastructure, and supporting low-cost public universities as a way to supply businesses with an educated workforce and modern highways to facilitate their growth. Just like Reagan Republicans they believed in balanced budgets, but they were not averse to raising taxes in order to achieve a more fair form of taxation. They contrasted themselves with the Democratic Party by styling themselves as the party of "good governance" in contrast to the often corrupt Democratic political machines of the big cities, they were a protest vote in and often came in as reformers.
When it came to social issues like the Civil Rights and feminist movements, they vehemently rejected Social Conservatives like Barry Goldwater and Jesse Helms because they were social liberals with a Very Serious People lens. During the 1964 and 1968 Republican Party primaries, they often ran against the movement social conservatives to expand the Republican Party's base to more minorities. That is why, for example, Gerald Ford wanted someone like Rockefeller as vice president, because he was more socially liberal then Ford. Despite their social liberal views on issues like civil rights and feminism, they were often moderate conservatives on criminal justice issues. This is because, for example, during his 15 years as governor, Nelson Rockefeller doubled the size of New York state police and implemented many harsh laws like the "Rockefeller Drug Laws". While they tended to have Very Serious People views on the social issues of their day, they tended to be more realist in nature.
During the Cold War, they tended to be realists along with espousing internationalist policies that supported international institutions to promote American business interests abroad. Most wanted to use the power of the United States in cooperation with allies to fight against the spread of Soviet communism and help American business expand abroad. They tended to support alliances like NATO and SEATO, along with international foreign aid programs like the Marshall Plan to increase cooperation against the Soviet Union. They tended to be opposed to the liberal internationalism of Woodrow Wilson, but they also tended to be opposed to the isolationism of the paleoconservative old right led by Robert Taft.
List of historical Rockefeller Republicans
- John B. Anderson, Illinois Congressman who found Reagan too conservative for his tastes and ran in 1980 as an independent candidate for president. Anderson won over 6% of the vote, not bad for an independent not running on a party ticket. This would be the last major backlash from the liberals in the GOP against the conservatives who soon after took complete control of the party.
- Edward Brooke, Massachusetts Senator from 1967-1979. The first African-American Senator elected since Reconstruction, Brooke drew Nixon's ire for opposing his nomination of segregationist G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court. He also supported the Equal Rights Amendment and was an early proponent of gay rights.
- Thomas Dewey (of "Dewey Defeats Truman" infamy). Dewey was Rockefeller's predecessor both as Governor of New York and the leading figure of the party's moderate wing.
- Bob Dole would like you to know Bob Dole is on here too. (Notably before 1996.)
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
- Gerald Ford
- Charles Goodell, New York Senator from 1968-1971. A vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, he was targeted by Nixon for defeat in 1970; he ultimately lost to the Conservative Party's James Buckley (brother of William F. Buckley).
- Mark Hatfield, governor of Oregon from 1959-1967 and senator from Oregon from 1967-1997, was considered too liberal for most Republicans and was rejected by Nixon over Spiro Agnew for Vice President. With Democrat George McGovern (Nixon's future opponent in 1972) he sponsored the Hatfield-McGovern Amendment to end the Vietnam War. It would have cut off all funding to the war effort by the end of 1971. Unsurprisingly, this failed.
- Jack Kemp, football player turned New York Congressman, George H.W. Bush's HUD Secretary and Bob Dole's running mate in 1996. While a staunch champion of supply side economics, he was consistently liberal on racial issues, especially affirmative action and immigration reform. This led Kemp's fellow Republicans to brand him "the bleeding heart conservative."
- Henry Kissinger was Rockefeller's foreign policy adviser until Nixon recruited him away with an offer as National Security Adviser. Kissinger voted for Rockefeller over Nixon in the 1960 and 1968 primaries.
- John Lindsay, Mayor of New York City from 1966-1973. The original limousine liberal, Lindsay became a Democrat for his quixotic Presidential bid in 1972.
- Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Senator from Massachusetts, Eisenhower's UN Ambassador and later John F. Kennedy's Ambassador to South Vietnam. Also, Nixon's gaffe-prone running mate in 1960 and Chief Negotiator to the Paris Peace talks with North Vietnam after 1968.
- Pete McCloskey, California Congressman from 1967-1983. A vocal critic of Vietnam, he challenged Nixon's reelection in 1972 and was the first Republican to call for Nixon's impeachment. He also derailed Pat Robertson's presidential bid in 1988 by exposing Robertson's wartime "heroics" as a fraud.
- Charles H. Percy, Senator from Illinois from 1967-1985. First gained prominence as an advocate for low-income housing and remained extremely liberal on racial issues throughout his career.
- Nelson Rockefeller.[citation NOT needed]
- George Romney, Governor of Michigan from 1963-1969 and Nixon's HUD Secretary, known for his devotion to civil rights. His 1968 presidential bid was upended by his criticism of the Vietnam War, specifically his comment that he'd been "brainwashed" by military and diplomatic officials about the war.
- Richard Schweiker, Pennsylvania Senator from 1969-1981; in 1976 Ronald Reagan offered the Vice Presidency to Schweiker in a bid to win the Pennsylvania delegation away from incumbent Gerald Ford, and create a liberal-conservative east-west Republican coalition; Schweiker later took the liberal panty-waist position of Secretary of Health and Human Services under Reagan which Reagan took a meat-axe to.
- Hugh Scott, Senator from Pennsylvania from 1959-1977. Pretty much the archetypical Rockefeller Republican: pro-civil rights, pro-public housing, anti-Nixon, hawkish on foreign policy, a critic of the Vietnam War.
- William Scranton, Governor of Pennsylvania from 1963-1967 who challenged Barry Goldwater's nomination in 1964. Later chaired the Scranton Commission to investigate the Kent State shootings and served as Ford's UN Ambassador.
- Margaret Chase Smith, Senator from Maine best-known as the first Republican to publicly denounce Joe McCarthy. She was also the first woman to campaign for a major party's presidential nomination in 1964.
- Harold Stassen. Before becoming a perennial presidential candidate, Stassen was a progressive Governor of Minnesota, a signatory of the United Nations Charter and an aide to Eisenhower.
- Earl Warren, Supreme Court Chief Justice from 1953-1969, following four terms as California Governor. In California, his administration implemented New Deal-style programs which made him one of the most popular governors ever there. As Chief Justice, he oversaw sweeping civil rights reforms as a result of the Court's continuous rulings striking down segregation laws.
- Wendell Willkie, Indiana businessman, economist and 1940 Presidential candidate. He won the Republican nomination during a brokered convention; he endorsed intervention in World War II when most Republicans remained isolationist, and became an Ambassador-at-large for FDR after the election.
- Arlen Specter, late Senator from Pennsylvania who was one of the last remaining moderates in the party during the 1980s-2000s. Specter actually began his career as a Democrat, but in 1965 he became a Republican to run for Philadelphia District Attorney, due to the city's Democratic machine declining to endorse him. Amusingly enough, he switched back to the Democratic party in 2009 due to his fear of losing a primary challenge from the right by Pat Toomey, a turn of events that likely signaled the final collapse of the "Moderate Republican" as an electorally viable position.
- Lowell Weicker, former Senator & Governor of Connecticut who is probably best-remembered for his role on the Senate Watergate committee. Ironically, his Democratic opponent for the 1988 Senate race, Joe Lieberman, defeated Weicker by running to the right of him. Weicker subsequently abandoned the GOP and won election as Governor as an Independent.
- Jacob Javits, U.S. Representative, a U.S. Senator and attorney from New York. According to one methodology, he is considered the most left-wing Republican in the house from 1937-2002.
Where are they now?
They are largely gone, having been driven out by the rise of neoconservatism, neoliberalism, and the Religious Right, as well as by the tax revolts of the 1970s. Today's "moderate" Republicans (like Olympia Snowe, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and formerly Chris Christie) are often dismissed as "RINOs" by the activist "movement conservatives" that have taken over the GOP since Reagan, despite said so-called RINOs not really being that much different on overall substance. As a result, what had once been among the most solidly Republican areas of the country, like New Jersey and western New England, are now among the most solidly Democratic, as these areas were hotbeds of the Rockefeller wing of the party. The endangered species status has also been placed in states of the Upper Midwest, where Rockefellers used to be similarly prevalent. During the 1964 Republican primary in which Goldwater was opposed by Nelson Rockefeller himself, Rockefeller's campaign manager asked him to "summon that fabled nexus of money, influence, and condescension known as the Eastern Establishment [i.e., liberal Republicans]." The candidate's reply: "You're looking at it, buddy. I'm all that is left."
Today it can effectively be argued that the centrist wing of the Democratic Party (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama) is most similar to the Rockefeller Republicans in policy and ideology. Indeed, in the world that is not the United States, Obama has been compared to the "one nation Toryism" of Benjamin Disraeli, and he's even been explicitly linked to old-styled Rockefeller Republicans.
While running for President, then-candidate Donald Trump was considered by some to be a moderate Republican (albeit in an admittedly weird way). However, his outstanding flip-flop populism and definite Alt-right quirks disqualify him from being counted as a Rockefeller Republican outright. Maybe Trump will one day be remembered as the first "Trump Republican", but that won't
necessarily be a good thing.
- Blue Dog Democrats
- Cloth coat Republican
- Radical Republicans
- South Park Republicans
- Very Serious People (Rockefeller Republicans are quite popular among such types)
- Wikipedia had an article on the Main Street Republican Caucus, the heirs of the Rockefeller Republican tradition.
- He was appointed to fill Robert Kennedy's seat after Kennedy's assassination
- His son, sadly, never lived up to the family name.
- The Reagan Election and Mandate: Their Fiscal Policy Implications for the Welfare State, James Fendrich & Douglas St. Angelo, The Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, Vol.8 Issue 3, December 2014, pp. 12-18 pdf.
- Richard Norton Smith, On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller (2014) p. xxi.
- Is Barack Obama a Tory?, BBC
- Cheer Up, Republicans, Slate
- Barack Obama, Left Conservative, The New Yorker
- How Liberal is President Obama?, The New York Times