The Spectacle Blog

No, We’re Not All Rockefeller Republicans

By on 4.1.08 | 3:33PM

Powerline's John Hinderaker has a short article (pdf) making the contrarian argument that Nelson Rockefeller's brand of politics carried the day. The piece appears, appropriately enough, in the newsletter of Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy. I'm afraid Hinderaker's thesis depends on a definition of Rockefeller Republicanism that is both dumbed down and divorced from the history of American politics over the last four decades.

Hinderaker's argument is basically this: Rockefeller was an internationalist and so are most members of both political parties. Rockefeller was a pro-business liberal; there are now Democrats who are pro-business liberals. Rockfeller was a Republican who accepted big government; there are now lots of Republicans who accept big government. He writes, "Republicans no longer are trying to undo the New Deal, and Democrats no longer dream of a socialist future."

Most of the above is true, but a lot of context is missing. The 1964 fight between Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller was about a lot of things but America being "fully engaged abroad" wasn't one of them. Goldwater wasn't an "isolationist," nor would that label apply to most Republican leaders since Dwight Eisenhower beat Robert Taft for the nomination in 1952 (Taft wasn't an "isolationist" either, exactly). Rockefeller's welfare policies in New York were exactly the kind Republicans and moderate Democrats wanted to reform and reverse in the 1990s.

Rockefeller's "willingness to spend money and, if necessary, raise taxes" was rejected by Ronald Reagan's heirs in the Republican Party to such an extent that Reagan's tax increases as governor of California might have derailed his nomination today. If you don't believe me, ask Mike Huckabee. Rockefeller Republicans held a far more expansive view of government than even such Northeastern moderates of today as Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. Christine Todd Whitman ran for governor of New Jersey in 1993 on a platform of slashing tax rates 30 percent across the board, which isn't very Rockefellerite.

There were some conservatives in the 1960s who wanted to see the right align with the Rockfeller Republicans. There are some who would like to see conservatism become some combination of Rockefeller Republicanism and Tory socialism today. But a more careful examination shows that the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s weren't kind to the people who considered themselves Rockefeller Republicans.

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