|Political position||Center to center-right|
The Rockefeller Republicans, also called Moderate, Liberal, or Progressive Republicans, were members of the Republican Party (GOP) in the 1930s–1970s who held moderate to liberal views on domestic issues, similar to those of Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York (1959–1973) and Vice President of the United States (1974–1977). Rockefeller Republicans were most common in the Northeast and the West Coast with their larger liberal constituencies while they were rare in the South and Midwest. They often saw themselves as champions of "good government", contrasting themselves to the often corrupt machine politics of the Democratic Party, particularly in large cities.
Rockefeller Republicanism has been described as the last phase of the "Eastern Establishment" of the GOP which had been led by New York governor Thomas E. Dewey. The group's powerful role in the GOP came under heavy attack during the 1964 primary campaign between Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater. At a discouraging point before the California primary, political operative Stuart Spencer called on Rockefeller to "summon that fabled nexus of money, influence, and condescension known as the Eastern Establishment." Rockefeller replied, "You are looking at it, buddy, I am all that is left".
The phrase "Rockefeller Republican" has come to be used in a pejorative sense by modern conservatives, who use it to deride those in the Republican Party that are perceived to have views which are too liberal, especially on major social issues. The term was adopted mostly because of Nelson Rockefeller's vocal support of civil rights and lavish spending policies. However, historian Justin P. Coffey has stated that Rockefeller's liberalism is a myth, with former Vice President Spiro Agnew pointing out that the reality was quite different, stating that: "A lot of people considered Rockefeller very liberal and very dovish on foreign policy, but he was not. He was harder than Nixon, and a lot more hawkish about the mission of America in the world".
In domestic policy, Rockefeller Republicans were typically moderate to center-right economically, vehemently rejected conservatives like Barry Goldwater and had social policies that were often culturally liberal. They espoused government and private investments in environmentalism, healthcare, and higher education as necessities for a better society and economic growth in the tradition of Rockefeller. They were strong supporters of state colleges and universities, low tuition and large research budgets. They favored infrastructure improvements such as highway projects.
In general, Rockefeller Republicans opposed socialism and government ownership, though they supported some regulation of business. They typically favored New Deal programs and a social safety net and sought to run these programs more efficiently than the Democrats.
They were strong supporters of big business and Wall Street. Many Republicans of the Eisenhower-Rockefeller vein were major figures in business, such as auto executive George W. Romney and investment banker C. Douglas Dillon. In fiscal policy, they favored balanced budgets and were not averse to raising taxes in order to achieve them. Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush once called for Congress to "raise the required revenues by approving whatever levels of taxation may be necessary".
A critical element was their support for labor unions and especially the building trades appreciated the heavy spending on infrastructure. In turn, the unions gave these politicians enough support to overcome the anti-union rural element in the Republican Party. As the unions weakened after the 1970s, so too did the need for Republicans to cooperate with them. This transformation played into the hands of the more conservative Republicans, who did not want to collaborate with labor unions in the first place and now no longer needed to do so to carry statewide elections.
In foreign policy, they tended to be Hamiltonian, espousing internationalist and realist policies, supporting the United Nations and promoting American business interests abroad. Most wanted to use American power in cooperation with allies to fight against the spread of Soviet communism and help American business expand abroad. Richard Nixon, a moderate establishment Republican within the party's contemporary ideological framework, was influenced by this tradition.
Thomas E. Dewey, the Governor of New York from 1942 to 1954 and the Republican presidential nominee in 1944 and 1948, was the leader of the moderate-wing of the Republican Party in the 1940s and early 1950s, battling conservative Republicans from the Midwest led by Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, known as "Mr. Republican". With the help of Dewey, General Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Taft for the 1952 presidential nomination and became the leader of the moderates. Eisenhower coined the phrase "Modern Republicanism" to describe his moderate vision of Republicanism. After Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, the Governor of New York, emerged as the leader of the moderate-wing of the Republican Party, running for President in 1960, 1964 and 1968. Rockefeller Republicans suffered a crushing defeat in 1964 when conservatives captured control of the Republican Party and nominated Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona for President.
Other prominent figures in the GOP's Rockefeller-wing included Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, Pennsylvania Governor Raymond P. Shafer, Pennsylvania Senator Hugh Scott, Illinois Senator Charles H. Percy, Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith, New York Senator Jacob Javits, and Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, Nelson's younger brother (who was somewhat of an aberration in the conservative, heavily Democratic South). Some also include President Richard Nixon. Although Nixon ran against Rockefeller from the right in the 1968 primaries and was widely identified with the cultural right of the time, he adopted several Rockefeller Republican policies during his time as President, for instance setting up the Environmental Protection Agency, supporting expanded welfare programs, imposing wage and price controls and in 1971 announcing he was a Keynesian.
Barry Goldwater crusaded against the Rockefeller Republicans, beating Rockefeller narrowly in the California primary of 1964. That set the stage for a conservative resurgence, based in the South and West in opposition to the Northeast Rockefeller wing. However, the moderate contingent recaptured control of the party and nominated Richard Nixon in 1968. Easily reelected in 1972, after his resignation Nixon was replaced as President by the moderately conservative Republican Gerald Ford. After Vice President Rockefeller left the national stage in 1976, this faction of the party was more often called "moderate Republicans" or Nixonians in contrast to the conservatives who rallied to Ronald Reagan. Four years after nearly toppling the incumbent Ford in the 1976 presidential primaries, conservative Ronald Reagan won the party's presidential nomination at the 1980 Republican National Convention and served two terms in the White House.
Michael Lind contends that the ascendancy of the more conservative fusionist-wing of the Republican Party, beginning in the 1960s with Goldwater and culminating in the Reagan Revolution in 1980, prevented the establishment of a Disraelian one-nation conservatism in the United States.
By 1988, the Republicans had chosen Prescott Bush's son George H. W. Bush as its presidential candidate on a conservative platform. Bush's national convention pledge to stave off new taxation were he elected president ("Read my lips: no new taxes!") marked the candidate's full conversion to the conservative movement and perhaps the political death knell for Rockefeller Republicanism as a prevailing force within party politics.
Ethnic changes[clarification needed] in the Northeast may have led to the demise of the Rockefeller Republican. Many Republican leaders associated with this title were White Anglo-Saxon Protestants like Charles Mathias of Maryland. Liberal New York Republican Senator Jacob Javits, who had an Americans for Democratic Action rating above 90% and an American Conservative Union rating below 10%, was Jewish. As time went on, the local Republican parties in the Northeast tended to nominate Catholic candidates who appealed to middle class social values-laden concerns, such as George Pataki, Rudy Giuliani, Al D'Amato, Rick Lazio, Tom Ridge, Chris Christie and others, who in many cases represented the party's diversity more on the basis of religion and were often otherwise like their Protestant conservative counterparts.
With their power decreasing in the final decades of the 20th century, many moderate Republicans were replaced by conservative and moderate Democrats, such as those from the Blue Dog or New Democrat coalitions. Michael Lind contends that the by the mid-90s the liberalism of President Bill Clinton and the New Democrats were in many ways to the right of Eisenhower, Rockefeller, and John Lindsay, the Republican mayor of New York City in the late 1960s. In 2009, CNN published an analysis describing how liberal and moderate Republicans had declined by the start of the 21st century. In 2010, Scott Brown was elected to the Senate to fill the seat once held by Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy. He was considered to be a moderate Republican in a similar mold as Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine. However, by middle of the century's second decade, only Senator Susan Collins of Maine remained as a moderately liberal Republican representing the New England at the federal level.
Challenged by the Tea Party
In 2010, several moderate Republicans lost their primaries or were challenged by the Tea Party movement. In Alaska, Senator Lisa Murkowski, the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, lost her GOP primary to conservative Tea Party challenger Joe Miller. The Tea Party's campaign organization "helped Miller portray the senator as too liberal for the state". Despite her primary defeat, Murkowski was reelected after waging a successful write-in campaign.
Senator John McCain survived a primary in 2010, but his Tea Party opponent J. D. Hayworth accused him of being insufficiently conservative. A few years after in 2014, the Arizona Republican Party censured McCain "for a record they called too 'liberal'". An op-ed of The Washington Post made the assertion that Castle's loss marked the end of the party legacy of Nelson Rockefeller.
In upstate New York, GOP-nominated Dede Scozzafava was opposed by national conservatives within the Republican Party during her election bid for a congressional district: "National PACs upset with Scozzafava's support of the federal stimulus, EFCA, same-sex marriage and abortion rights poured on money and attacks". She was pressured to drop out of the race,and when she did the Republican National Committee endorsed Tea Party-backed Doug Hoffman.
Revival in the Northeast
"Liberal to moderate Northeastern Republicans were once as much a part of the political landscape as today's liberals from Massachusetts." According to the National Review, "At the state level, however, a kind of Rockefeller Republicanism seems to be rising once again in recent years" in New England and the Northeast.
In 2015, moderate Republicans were elected governor of Maryland (Larry Hogan) and Massachusetts (Charlie Baker). In 2017, New Hampshire (Chris Sununu) and Vermont (Phil Scott) also elected moderates. According to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, the quartet are among the most popular governors in the country. In 2018, Baker was re-elected by a 2:1 margin, receiving more votes than Elizabeth Warren, who was also running for re-election.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker "is socially liberal [...]. He is pro-choice and has long supported gay marriage". In Vermont, the voters elected Phil Scott as Governor. Describing himself, Governor Scott stated: "I am very much a fiscal conservative. But not unlike most Republicans in the Northeast, I'm probably more on the left of center from a social standpoint. [...] I am a pro–choice Republican". In 2017, The Washington Post described Larry Hogan, another Republican governor in a deep-blue state, as "a moderate Republican who is focused on jobs and the economy".
The term "Rockefeller Republican" is now somewhat archaic as Nelson Rockefeller died in 1979. The Atlantic has referred to the election of Northeastern Republicans as being similar to "Rockefeller-style liberal Republicanism", even though the label is not necessarily used by the candidates themselves. The Rockefeller Republican label has sometimes been applied to modern politicians, such as Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who served as a Republican in the Senate, was elected that state's governor as an independent, and later became a Democrat and briefly sought that party's 2016 presidential nomination. Some more conservative members of the Republican Party use the label in a derisive manner, along with other labels such as RINOs, i.e. Republicans in Name Only, The Establishment, or "Acela Republicans," a reference to the Acela Express running along the eastern seaboard.
Christine Todd Whitman, former Governor of New Jersey, referred to herself as a Rockefeller Republican in a speech on Governor Rockefeller at Dartmouth College in 2008. Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, who is a registered Democrat, referred to himself as a "Rockefeller Republican" in a CNBC interview in April 2012. The retired four-star generals Colin Powell and David Petraeus have both described themselves as "Rockefeller Republicans". Former Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) are also two notable moderately liberal Republicans from the Northeast. Former Senator Scott Brown (R-Massachusetts), who ran a Senate campaign in New Hampshire, also had a voting record described as more liberal than most Republicans.
Senator John McCain was often referred to as a moderate during his 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns by opponents and commentators alike. In the 2000 primary, Bush described the race as "going to be a clear race between a more moderate-to-liberal candidate vs. a conservative candidate in the state of South Carolina". NPR covered the 2008 campaign reporting that "some conservative Republicans say McCain's voting record shows him to be too moderate a GOP candidate". The BBC reported that that this reputation as being more centrist was "for his relatively moderate views on civil unions, abortion and immigration reform". In 2004 and 2006, McCain was one of a few Republicans who voted against banning same-sex marriage at the federal level, arguing that the issue should be left to the states. However, FiveThirtyEight, which tracks and scores Congressional votes, had found that McCain had shifted between being more moderate and more conservative based on its study.
In 2012, the GOP nominated as their candidate for President Mitt Romney a Governor who had described himself as moderate and progressive in 2002. Running for Governor of Massachusetts, he said of himself: "I'm not a partisan Republican. [...] I'm someone who is moderate, and [...] my views are progressive". In his 1994 Senate campaign, Romney distanced himself from Ronald Reagan, noting that he was an independent during the Reagan presidency. One of his 2012 primary opponents, Newt Gingrich, even referred to Romney as a "Rockefeller Republican" in order to draw a contrast between Romney's former self-description and his own. However, in his own words during the 2012 campaign Romney described himself as a "severely conservative" Republican.
At the 1988 Republican National Convention, Donald Trump was asked by Larry King on CNN: "You might be classified as an Eastern Republican, Rockefeller Republican. Fair?", to which Trump replied: "I guess you can say that". When Trump was considering to run against Andrew Cuomo for Governor of New York, Trump was dubbed as a "Conservative Rockefeller Republican". During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump was described as both a modern-day Rockefeller Republican (by some conservative writers) and as the heir to the Goldwaterite opposition to the Rockefeller Republicans.
In 2019, William (Bill) Weld announced that would consider a challenge to President Trump for the Republican nomination. Bill Weld has been described by The New York Times, in both his gubernatorial and presidential campaigns, as a moderate Republican. He has been likened to Rockefeller. Governor Weld is described as fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
Notable moderate Republicans
- Charlie Baker, Governor of Massachusetts (2015–present)
- Edward Brooke, former Senator from Massachusetts
- Scott Brown, former Senator from Massachusetts
- John Chafee, former Governor of and Senator from Rhode Island
- Lincoln Chafee, former Senator from Rhode Island
- Susan Collins, Senator from Maine
- Rodney Frelinghuysen, former Congressman from New Jersey
- John Heinz, former Senator from Pennsylvania
- Larry Hogan, Governor of Maryland (2015–present)
- Jacob Javits, former Senator from New York
- Anthony Kennedy, former Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1988-2018)
- Mark Kirk, former Senator from Illinois
- John Lindsay, former Mayor of and Congressman from New York City
- Lisa Murkowski, Senator from Alaska
- Bruce Rauner, Governor of Illinois (2015-2019)
- Tom Ridge, former Governor of Pennsylvania and Secretary of Homeland Security
- Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Governor of California
- Hugh Scott, former Senator from Pennsylvania and Senate Majority Leader
- Phil Scott, Governor of Vermont (2017–present)
- Olympia Snowe, former Senator from Maine
- Arlen Specter, former Senator from Pennsylvania
- John Paul Stevens, former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
- Chris Sununu, Governor of New Hampshire (2017-present)
- Lowell Weicker, former Governor of Connecticut
- William Weld, former Governor of Massachusetts
- Christine Todd Whitman, former Governor of New Jersey
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