Rockefeller Republican

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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.


They were usually fiscally moderate to center-right,[1] socially moderate to center-left, and slightly hawkish on foreign policy, and were thus sometimes referred to as "liberal Republicans". Dwight Eisenhower used the term "modern Republicanism" to describe this wing of the Party, as opposed to the Old Right led by Robert Taft and other conservatives. Geographically, they were mostly concentrated on the East Coast, especially New York and Pennsylvania, leading to the nickname "the Eastern Establishment" to describe them at the height of their power.

Economically, they were opposed to socialism and government ownership of businesses, but still supported the rights of organized labor, some regulations on business, and the basic framework of the New Deal as integral parts of a capitalist system, though as FDR notes, they always dressed their tacit support with "We would like to, uhh, change it, you know?" They believed in investment in education, health care, and infrastructure, supporting low-cost public universities and the Interstate Highway System as a way to supply businesses with an educated workforce and modern highways to facilitate their growth. Like modern Republicans, they favored balanced budgets, though unlike modern Republicans, they were not averse to raising taxes in order to do so. They were strong supporters of Wall Street and big business; many of their ranks came from the worlds of business and finance. They contrasted themselves with the Democratic Party by styling themselves as the party of "good governance" in contrast to the often corrupt (and often Democratic) political machines of the big cities; they were a "protest vote" in urban areas, and when elected, they often came in as reformers.

Socially, they were broadly supportive of civil rights, feminism, reproductive rights, and other social reform movements, at times to a greater extent than the mainstream of the Democratic Party and certainly more than its white Southern wing. Republicans like Earl Warren presided over many of the early social reforms of the 1950s and early '60s. However, for better or worse, it was typically an upper-class, WASP-y liberalism with a VSP perspective on many such issues, seeking to accept and facilitate changes that were already happening and correct obvious injustices in society, but not rock the boat and push much further. When the New Left emerged in the late '60s, the Rockefeller Republicans often seemed reactionary by comparison. On foreign policy, they repudiated the isolationism of the "Old Right" and were often fiercely anti-communist Cold Warriors, though not rabidly so; Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his Farewell Address, warned about the growing power and influence of the military-industrial complex, and Nixon ran on a platform of ending the Vietnam War "with honor." Many of the politicians listed below were opponents, or at least critics, of the Vietnam War.

List of historical Rockefeller Republicans[edit]

  • 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.[2] 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.
  • Richard Nixon. While he ran as a right-wing "Silent Majority" warrior, he governed from the center, and by modern standards (as noted by people like Noam Chomsky[3] and Bruce Bartlett[4]) he would be seen as a liberal.
  • 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.[5] 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.[6]
  • 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 WeickerWikipedia's W.svg, 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 JavitsWikipedia's W.svg, 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.[7]

Where are they now?[edit]

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."[8]

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,[9] and he's even been explicitly linked to old-styled Rockefeller Republicans.[10][11][12]

While running for President, then-candidate Donald Trump was considered by some to be a moderate Republican[13][14] (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.

See also[edit]


  1. For the time, though arguably some of their tax policy would be regarded as liberalism if suggested in the US today.
  2. He was appointed to fill Robert Kennedy's seat after Kennedy's assassination
  3. Conetta, Christine."Noam Chomsky: Richard Nixon Was 'Last Liberal President'." The Huffington Post, 21 February 2014 (recovered 4 September 2015).
  4. Bartlett, Bruce. "Barack Obama: The Democrats' Richard Nixon?" The Fiscal Times, 22 July 2011 (recovered 4 September 2015).
  5. His son, sadly, never lived up to the family name.
  6. 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.
  8. Richard Norton Smith, On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller (2014) p. xxi.
  9. Is Barack Obama a Tory?, BBC
  10. Cheer Up, Republicans, Slate
  11. Barack Obama, Left Conservative, The New Yorker
  12. How Liberal is President Obama?, The New York Times
  13. [1]
  14. [2]