Is Mitt Romney the New Nelson Rockefeller? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Is Mitt Romney the New Nelson Rockefeller?

“Despite my affiliation with the Republican Party, I don’t think of myself as highly partisan.”
Mitt Romney in his book No Apology 

And there it was again.

Front and center in last  night’s CNN New Hampshire debate with Republican presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney twice — not once but twice — illustrated his problem as a presidential candidate and potential Republican president in the post-Reagan era.

Midway into the debate Romney answered a question on how to deal with the issue of raising the debt limit by saying that as president he would concentrate on “reining in the excesses of government.” And when asked about picking a vice president Romney came back to the point; he would “restrain the growth of government.”

It’s not as if no one is noticing The Problem with Mitt Romney.

Even if everyone is polite enough not to just spit it out.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page was plain.

National Review, which had a different opinion four years ago, is now onto it.

The Club for Growth named it without putting a name to it. 

Mark Levin is heartsick about finding himself onto it.

But onto what?

OK, it’s time to lay the cards down.

Who, exactly, is the Lord Voldemort of the Republican Party?

What is the name in conservative circles that, in the style of the chief villain in the Harry Potter stories, might best be referred to as “You-Know-Who,” “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” or “The Dark Lord”?

Can you whisper in print? Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.… That would be……

Nelson Rockefeller.

Say what? Speak up!!!! Did you say…

Nelson Rockefeller?????!!!!!!!!!!!!

Well, yes. 

Nelson Rockefeller. That Nelson Rockefeller.

Grandson of the legendary billionaire oil man John D. Rockefeller and son of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. — or “Junior” as he was frequently called. Nelson himself was one of the famed five “Rockefeller Brothers,” John D. Jr.’s kids. Along with Nelson that included John D. III (father of today’s Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat), Laurance, David, and Winthrop. (The remaining sibling of his generation was the frequently unmentioned sister Abby.) All devoted entire lives to philanthropic causes ranging from finance to architecture to the environment and more. While the others went about their varied interests it was Nelson who eagerly served Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower in various national security, foreign policy and domestic capacities before plunging into his own political career as the longtime Republican Governor of New York, two-time presidential candidate and appointed-Vice President of the United States for Gerald Ford.

But as the political world eventually understood, Nelson Rockefeller came to represent something much more than all of the above.

In the world of politics it was Nelson Rockefeller who had the misfortune to have all the political assets one could possibly imagine — looks, charm, brains, energy and literally all the money he could use. Yet with all of this Rockefeller was totally unable — if not stubbornly unwilling — to understand the significance of the conservative revolution that was swirling around him as his own career unfolded. And in not understanding, much less not leading that conservative revolution Rockefeller not only failed spectacularly as a presidential candidate but made himself into a defiant symbol of resistance. He transformed himself into a man so stubbornly enamored of the liberal status quo and its supporting Establishment that his very name attached to that of his party became not simply a descriptive to conservatives but an epithet:

“The Rockefeller Republican.”

It was — and in some quarters remains to this day — a short-hand, derisive description for Republicans now labeled as a “RINO” — Republican In Name Only. The Rockefeller Republican became immutably identified as someone whose philosophical moorings and political instincts lay not in the Constitution but rather with the American progressive movement and the liberal Establishment that movement had become. Or, as Rockefeller’s longtime intra-party rival Ronald Reagan once described the problem to Time magazine:

“I think the division of the Republican Party grew from pragmatism on the part of some, the Republicans who said, ‘Look what the Democrats are doing and they’re staying in power. The only way for us, if we want to have any impact at all, is somehow to copy them.’ This was where the split began to grow, because there were other people saying, ‘Wait a minute. There is great danger in following this path toward Government intervention.'”

Reagan never left any doubt as to the fact that in his use of the word “some” he was decidedly including Nelson Rockefeller.

So as the 2012 Republican campaign to take the presidential chair begins, the obvious question that more and more conservatives are asking, however they phrase it, is this:

Is Mitt Romney the new Nelson Rockefeller?

The question takes on even more import in the wake of the New Hampshire GOP debate last night as Romney reinforced the doubts of Reaganites. 

Does the man with the money, looks, charm, brains, energy — and like Rockefeller in the run-up to the 1964 GOP nomination fight in 1963, leading in the early polls — really understand the meaning of the Reagan Revolution? Is Mitt Romney the man whose legendary flip-flopping could be more kindly said to have the same cause as Rockefeller’s — a devotion to what Reagan disdained as “pragmatism”? Is the Romney campaign — and a potential Romney Administration — to be nothing more than a 21st century Rockefeller replay? Except that this time Nelson Rockefeller finally wins?

TO ANSWER THE QUESTION, it helps to understand a bit more about just why Nelson Rockefeller went from being a man with such incredible political promise at the dawn of his career to such a scorned and despised symbol (by conservatives) at the end of it.

In 1958, Nelson Rockefeller, bored and frustrated with over a decade of being the hustling young go-to aide to three presidents, concluded correctly that the real power in Washington and American politics came to those who held elected office. Only there could one acquire the authority to face down faceless bureaucrats, to make policy in one’s own name, to have, as the saying goes, a seat at the table. To the concern of his own family, and against the political advice of the day that 1958 was doomed to be a bad year for Republicans (which was in other regards correct), Rockefeller plunged himself into what was seen as a starkly uphill fight to be Governor of New York.

Skillfully employing every last financial resource at his disposal (which was much more than very considerable), he focused like a laser on the minutia first of the hapless New York Republican Party, then the massive geography that is Upstate (outside New York City) — and finally on the man he would oppose once nominated. The latter would be a rather Rockefeller-style man himself — railroad heir and fellow FDR and Truman advisor Averell Harriman. Harriman, every bit as wealthy as Rockefeller give or take a dime, had been elected in 1954. His problem? Averell Harriman was no politician. In the vernacular that Donald Trump used recently to describe unnamed GOP presidential candidates, Harriman was a “stiff.” He was the businessman-turned-Washington insider supreme, the man FDR and Truman dispatched to deal with Stalin in Moscow or Churchill in London or made a Cabinet member. Harriman was many things. But Mr. Congeniality Harriman was decidedly not, his election as governor four years earlier not withstanding.

Rockefeller was Harriman’s personal — if not professional — opposite. Bursting onto the New York political scene, overnight Nelson Rockefeller was capturing headlines and television coverage with his breezy style. “Hi ya fella!” he would boom in a gravelly voice as he bounded around the state, happily gorging himself on blintzes and Coney Island hot dogs as he grasped every hand in sight. He was a veritable political tornado on the move from Manhattan to Syracuse, Buffalo, Binghamton, Rochester and back again. There was not a street vendor or apple farmer in the state safe from Rockefeller’s whirlwind. He morphed from the proper and sober-sounding Nelson A. Rockefeller (the “A” for Aldrich, his maternal grandfather, a wealthy U.S. Senator from Rhode Island) into “Rocky” — as the New York tabloids dubbed the billionaire’s smiling grandson.

And, to the shock of observers of the day, he won.

By January of 1959 he was, as he was called for the rest of his life, “Governor Rockefeller.” A position he would occupy through four election victories until he chose to yield it by voluntary resignation in 1973.

And it was right here, at the very beginning of his first term as governor, that Nelson Rockefeller began turning his career from rising Republican star to the Voldemort of conservatism. Transforming himself from serious presidential candidate to The Dark Lord of Republican presidential politics.

ROCKEFELLER WAS IN OFFICE only a matter of days before a pattern was established. There was Rockefeller rhetoric — and Rockefeller in action as chief executive.

His rhetoric (and this at the height of the Cold War) would be, today, considered almost Reaganesque. There were the stark flourishes about living in “a fatal testing time for free men and freedom itself — everywhere.” Americans, he said, “have seen the tyrant — first Fascist, then Communist — strike down free nations, shackle free peoples, and dare free men everywhere to prove they can survive.” He waxed philosophical, defining the challenges in America as a struggle “between those who believe in the essential equality of peoples of all nations and races and creeds — and those whose only creed is their own ruthless race for power.” To hear Nelson Rockefeller, the grandson of one of the century’s most famous oil entrepreneurs, talk about what conservatives today would call “economic growth” would bring tears to the eyes of budding entrepreneurs and small businessmen and women everywhere.

The problem came — and it came in abundance — with his actions. 

Nelson Rockefeller was not just a follower of the Establishment line — as a Rockefeller he was a card carrying member of that Establishment. His hand was literally no sooner off the swearing-in bible than he was enthusing about the need for this long range planning group and that future-oriented commission. He wanted to pour endless amounts of money into education. Life in New York was at peril if the state didn’t immediately expand all manner of state institutions while creating new ones. There had to be a state-funded arts council, studies of this problem and that problem and, well, a list of problems that was almost endless. And sometimes was.

How to pay for all of this?

A mere two weeks after taking office Governor Rockefeller let the world glimpse how he really thought by ramming tax increases through the legislature for gasoline and diesel fuel. Then he really got going. A month later he was demanding a staggering $227 million increase in state taxes that would come from taxes on everything, from personal income taxes to cigarette fees. He submitted the first $2 billion budget and biggest tax rise in the state’s history. Eventually it would be a Rockefeller brain child, so-called “Urban Development Corporation Bonds” that, as the late William Rusher would describe it in his book The Rise of the Right, was presented with the usual liberal moral glow of a “moral obligation.” Which led to New York City’s race “toward bankruptcy in 1974” in what was “simply the gaudiest and most irresponsible of Rockefeller’s successive plans for raising and spending more money on state projects.” Note: by 1974 Governor Rockefeller was Vice President Rockefeller — gone from state politics and any direct responsibility for coping with the results.

And so on, and on and on, he went. For fourteen years.

Forget specific A or B of his record. What this Rockefeller pattern demonstrated in a particularly vivid fashion was his inability to break away from the liberal Establishment thinking of the day. That, in sum, was his major flaw. While Ronald Reagan was already crisscrossing the country challenging the Establishment by laying out conservative principle in speeches for General Electric, Rockefeller was busy playing the Establishment game. While William F. Buckley, Jr. was poking a stick to prod the Establishment, illuminating conservative thought in fledgling issues of National Review, Rocky was full steam ahead with the status quo. And while Barry Goldwater was gaining audiences by the millions from his seat in the Senate and with the publication of The Conscience of a Conservative, Nelson Rockefeller was being called, in the first hint of his growing political problem with Republicans, the “millionaire New Dealer.”

In 1963, heedless to the growing conservative movement, Rockefeller actually believed this approach was what had him leading in the polls of the day that pitted him against the lesser known Goldwater. He had lost out to the sitting-Vice President Nixon in 1960, refusing a challenge but dictating the platform. Now, in effect, it was supposed to be his turn at bat. (And, it should be mentioned, he was also leading another “Rockefeller Republican” in the polls as well — the new Governor of Michigan. That would be Mitt Romney’s father, the newly elected Governor George Romney.)

Then there was another mistake — this one of a personal nature. In an era when divorce was semi-acceptable if still frowned upon, in 1962 Rockefeller had divorced his wife and the mother of his children after 32 years of marriage. Not good politically but not fatal. The explosion arrived when it later came to light that he had been having an affair with Margaretta “Happy” Murphy, the wife of Rockefeller Institute employee and Nelson’s close friend, a virologist named Dr. James Murphy. The Murphys divorced in April of 1963 — and a month later the world was stunned to discover all this as “Happy” married Nelson Rockefeller. Her husband getting custody of the kids. In short: POW!

Rockefeller’s poll numbers tanked, and he was tagged with the explosive charge of being a home wrecker. The John Edwards or Arnold Schwarzenegger of his day. Not good. While over the years the charge faded, in 1964 it played a role in his loss of the crucial California GOP primary to Goldwater.

BUT WHAT REALLY SEALED the image and the derisive coining of the term “Rockefeller Republican” was Rockefeller’s quite visible and verbal disdain for those who parted politically from the liberal Establishment way of thinking. Nelson Rockefeller would not — could not — contain his contempt for those who were beginning to abandon Republican liberalism in droves. It wasn’t simply that he could not summon the vision that was already crystal clear to Reagan — who would make his first nationally televised address defining conservatism only months later.

Instead, quite to the contrary of Reagan, instead of embracing conservatism and its warriors Rockefeller castigated them as not being “in the mainstream of American political thought and action,” sneering at them as “the radical Right lunatic fringe.” Conservatives, he insisted, employed the “tactics of totalitarianism” as they sat out there on the “extreme Right.”

Today this has become standard liberal dogma. In the early 1960s this was hot stuff, made even more attention-getting coming from someone regarded by the liberal media of the day (and it was all liberal media in that day) as the pillar of respectable Republicanism.

But why? Why the fury? The anger? The contempt?

There was a reason.

Nelson Rockefeller accepted — believed to the core of his being — in the Establishment way of government. And the modern conservative movement was nothing if not a threat to the liberal Establishment way of doing business. So Rockefeller did what came naturally. He fought back. Sometimes well, sometimes badly. He flailed. He fulminated. He even tried coping, adopting a patently see-throughable pattern of speaking right but governing liberal. It was a pattern, he apparently concluded, that would appease his conservative critics while leaving the Liberal Leviathan that was Big Government relatively unscathed.

But Rockefeller was wrong. He had misjudged conservatives completely.

Which is precisely the pattern of misjudgment that Mitt Romney is exhibiting with every increasing moment he spends campaigning for the very Republican presidential nomination that eluded Nelson Rockefeller. A pattern Romney reinforced yet again in last night’s New Hampshire debate. 

As Rockefeller was great on what we now call Reagan-esque rhetoric of freedom and economic growth, Mitt Romney is Nelson Rockefeller on steroids. In his campaign book No Apology, the pages overflow with references to “the American spirit” “the choice of freedom by the Founders” and denunciations of those who believe in “an ascendant role for government” and do not believe in “the principles and values that made America a great nation.” To his considerable credit, whether it reflects his beliefs or just a sense of good politics, Romney never goes after conservatives as Rockefeller did. The closest he has ever seemed to come, and it isn’t close, is suggesting that his new-found support for the Department of Education is not shared by “the base.”

Yet unmistakably, the Nelson Rockefeller mind-set oozes not only from Romney’s book but his presentations on the campaign trail. To say, as Romney does in his book, that “Despite my affiliation with the Republican Party I don’t think of myself as highly partisan” is simply one way of summing up the creed of the Rockefeller Republican — pragmatism. Which Reagan, of course, disdained. To write, as Romney also does in a doubtless unguarded moment, that “George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan had pushed the Soviet Union to the wall and won” implies that it was the Establishment Bush and not Reagan’s decidedly anti-Establishment views that won the day — when in fact it was precisely the reverse. A sure-thing Rockefeller Republican view of how the world perhaps should have worked in the 1980s.

From RomneyCare and its health insurance mandates (or, as rival Tim Pawlenty slyly called it, “ObamneyCare”) to his belief in climate change (which inevitably means the government must do X), to last night’s double confirmation that his goal as president would be merely to clip the hedges of big government, Mitt Romney is displaying his bona fides to the GOP liberal Establishment as the consummate Rockefeller Republican. As the Club for Growth has noted, when faced with a choice between those campaigning or governing as a conservative Reaganite or a Rockefeller Republican in this or that Republican primary around the country, with an almost Pavlovian instinct Romney is lightning quick to support the Rockefeller Republican. From Utah’s Senator Robert Bennett to Delaware’s Congressman Mike Castle to New York’s Dede Scozzafava in the 2009 special election for New York’s 23rd Congressional District, first, last and always the Romney instinct and action is to stand-up for the Establishment.

Says the group of Romney in this regard:

His contribution to history reads like a roster of “who’s who” of the Republican establishment.

Nelson Rockefeller could not have done it better.

The ultimate question for Republican primary voters, then, is whether the next Republican president should be a Rockefeller Republican or a Reagan Republican. A nominee and a president who accepts the precepts and principles of Rockefeller Republicanism — or one who does not. A nominee who believes, as did Reagan, that government is the problem, not the solution. A nominee who believes not that government is something that should be pruned or, as Romney says, “restrained” here and there, but instead sent throught the shredder entirely with the operating funds returned to the American people. A nominee who believes in eliminating the Department of Education, as Romney once said he believed, not falling in like with it, as he now says. 

The question is whether the GOP will choose a candidate who emulates the Rockefeller pattern of lots of rhetoric on freedom and economic growth while accepting the liberal Republican Establishment status quo view that America’s problems are best solved by a nudge here or a nudge there. Meaning in today’s world a Romney style “restraint” here and cutting a tad over there.

Or, as Mark Levin said of Romney with his usual sharp eye to discerning those who love to cite Ronald Reagan while in fact demonstrating they are anything but:

In Iowa he’s for ethanol subsidies [and] in New Hampshire he’s for controlling man-made global warming. I can’t support this man in the Republican Primary. There’s just no way without compromising all my principles.

Romney “basically destroyed health care in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Levin added, and with no pleasure, speculating on the disaster that would ensue in an administration where the Romney mind-set was appointing an EPA administrator.

Concluded the Club for Growth of Romney’s approach:

He would promote the unwinding of Obama’s bad economic policies, but we also think that Romney is somewhat of a technocrat. After a career in business, quickly finding a “solution” seems to be his goal, even if it means more government intrusion as a means to an end. To this day, Romney supports big government solutions to health care and opposes pro-growth tax code reform — positions that are simply opposite to those supported by true economic conservatives.

Or, as the Wall Street Journal pithily headlined, Romney’s approach qualifies him as “Obama’s Running Mate.”

And who can forget Rush Limbaugh noting Romney’s global warming remarks, saying: “Bye bye nomination”?

WHAT ALL OF THESE people are providing in their own way is a description not just of Romney but of the mindset that is the Rockefeller Republican. Nelson Rockefeller was the original technocrat politician, his Rockefeller connections and his family’s role in American business generating a passionate belief in Rockefeller’s soul that if only he hired enough experts, read enough McKinsey reports, and stayed up late enough ingesting enough data to find the right solution as quickly as possible — and set big government and crony capitalism on the trail — success was inevitable.

Which raises the obvious question with the obvious answer.

Why in the world would Mitt Romney ever campaign for the Republican presidential nomination  in a style and substance re-emphasized last night in New Hampshire — in such a fashion as to send signals that he is bidding fair to be the 21st century successor to Nelson Rockefeller, the “Dark Lord” of Republican presidential politics? The man who became the conservative equivalent of “He Who Shall Not Be Named” or “You Know Who”?

The obvious answer is: because that’s exactly who Mitt Romney really is.

Rockefeller Republicanism is Mitt Romney’s political core, his every political instinct, and it expresses itself and will continue to express itself as Romney moves through this campaign. Asking him to stop is like demanding the Pope not sound so, well, Catholic.

All of which poses an interesting dilemma for Republicans.

Here’s a great candidate for president. He’s got the looks, the charm, the energy, the brains and, if not Rockefeller-style money, at least enough plus the ability to raise more.

The problem:

He tries hard to sound like Ronald Reagan. 

But he thinks like Nelson Rockefeller.

Jeffrey Lord
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Jeffrey Lord, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is a former aide to Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. An author and former CNN commentator, he writes from Pennsylvania at His new book, Swamp Wars: Donald Trump and The New American Populism vs. The Old Order, is now out from Bombardier Books.
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