The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

February 21, 2019

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Rockefeller Republicans
Bruce Frohnen - 01/17/12

A “Rockefeller” Republican is a liberal Republican. Conservatives often mean the term to be highly critical, while many in the liberal (or “moderate”) wing of the Republican Party are happy to be associated with the term’s source, the late governor of New York, Nelson A. Rockefeller. Differing views on the term, then, reflect differing views of Rockefeller and his career.

A member of one of America’s wealthiest families, Rockefeller (1908–79) represented the most progressive wing of the Republican Party for two decades. As a congressman, and especially during his three terms as governor of New York, he promoted liberal policies on various social issues and supported increased government spending to fund an expanded welfare state and large public works projects. Most prominent during the 1960s, Rockefeller was a key proponent of programs in keeping with, and at times serving as models for, President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

Several times a candidate for president, Rockefeller’s divorce hurt his standing in the polls, particularly during his run in 1964 against conservative candidate Barry Goldwater. Having lost to Goldwater, Rockefeller delivered a speech at the Republican national convention in which he decried “extremist” elements within the Republican Party and accused his opponents of dirty tricks and connections with the John Birch Society. Roundly booed by the delegates, this speech helped deepen the conservative/liberal split within the Party; a split that helped lead to Goldwater’s poor showing in the general election, which he lost to Johnson in a landslide.

Rockefeller would continue to serve as governor of New York, running for president again in 1968. Chosen by Gerald Ford to serve as his vice president after Richard Nixon’s resignation, Rockefeller proved too liberal and too aristocratic in temperament and demeanor for rank-and-file Republicans and was bounced off the ticket when Ford ran for president in 1976.

While memories of Rockefeller and his reputation in general have faded, his name still can spark debate concerning the efficacy of his policies. Liberals in general have seen these policies as compassionate and just attempts to help the poor and the middle class. Conservatives have pointed out that poverty and other social ills increased substantially during Rockefeller’s tenure, along with government spending, taxes, and the size of the bureaucracy.

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