Moderate Republicans are a faction of the American Republican
Party (GOP) 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). It was 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 in 1964 and it lost most of its
influence. At a discouraging point in the 1964 California
primary campaign against Barry Goldwater, political operative
Stuart Spencer called on Rockefeller to "summon that fabled
nexus of money, influence, and condescension known as the
Eastern Establishment. 'You are looking at it, buddy,'
Rockefeller told Spencer. 'I am all that is left.'".
The term largely fell out of use by the end of the
twentieth century, and has been replaced by the terms "moderate
Republican" and, pejoratively, "RINO" (Republican In Name Only).
Rockefeller Republicans were typically moderate to center-right,
vehemently rejected conservatives like Barry Goldwater and his
policies, and were often, but not necessarily, 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. In general, Rockefeller Republicans
opposed socialism and government ownership. They supported some
regulation of business and many New Deal-style social programs .
A critical element was their support for labor unions. The
building trades, especially, 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
In foreign policy, most wanted to use American power in
cooperation with allies to fight against the spread of
communism. They wanted to help American business expand abroad.
Richard Nixon, a moderate establishment Republican within the
Party's contemporary ideological framework, but who ran against
Rockefeller from the right in 1968 and was widely identified
with the cultural right of the time, nevertheless was influenced
by this tradition within his party. Nixon set up the
Environmental Protection Agency, supported expanded welfare
programs, imposed wage and price controls, and in 1971 announced
he was a Keynesian. Rockefeller Republicans were most common in
the Northeast and the West Coast, with their larger liberal
constituencies; they were rare in the South and Midwest.
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 Pennsylvania Governor Raymond P. Shafer, Pennsylvania
Senator Hugh Scott, Illinois Senator Charles H. Percy, Oregon
Senator Mark Hatfield, Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller,
Nelson's younger brother (who was somewhat of an aberration in a
conservative, heavily Democratic Southern state), and, according
to some, President Richard Nixon.
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. Rockefeller
Republicans included moderates such as Senator Margaret Chase
Smith and liberals such as Jacob Javits.
Historically, Rockefeller Republicans were moderate or
liberal on domestic and social policies. They typically favored
New Deal programs and a social safety net; they sought to run
these programs more efficiently than the Democrats.
Rockefeller Republicans also saw themselves as champions of
"good government", contrasting themselves to the often corrupt
machine politics of the Democratic Party (particularly in large
cities) 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".
In state politics, they were strong supporters of state
colleges and universities, low tuition, and large research
budgets. They favored infrastructure improvements, such as
highway projects. In foreign policy, they tended to be
Hamiltonian, espousing internationalist and realist policies,
supporting the United Nations and promoting American business
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, in 1968 the moderate
contingent captured control of the GOP again and nominated
Richard Nixon. He was easily reelected in 1972 and after he
resigned, moderate-to-conservative Republican Gerald Ford
replaced him as President. Four years after nearly toppling the
incumbent Ford in the 1976 presidential primaries, Ronald Reagan
won the party's presidential nomination at the 1980 convention,
and served two terms in the White House. 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.
Yet the Rockefeller Republican label is sometimes applied
to such modern-day politicians as Senators Olympia Snowe, Susan
Collins of Maine and Governor Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.
The departure of liberal Republican Vermont U.S. Senator Jim
Jeffords from the Republican party in 2001 dramatized the
still-existing tension between the moderates and liberals of the
party and what is today its generally more influential socially
conservative wing. The term could also be applied to former U.S.
Representative Connie Morella of Maryland, who lost re-election
in 2002 to Democrat Chris Van Hollen. In the 2006 elections
after many moderate Republicans were defeated, including
then-Senator Lincoln Chafee, Nancy Johnson and Rob Simmons of
Connecticut, Charlie Bass of New Hampshire and Jim Leach of
Iowa, the prominence of Rockefeller Republicans dwindled even
further. The 2009 departure of moderate-to-liberal Pennsylvania
Senator Arlen Specter from the Republican Party further reduced
their numbers. However, in 2010 Bass won his old seat.
Ethnic changes in the Northeast may have led to the
demise of the Rockefeller Republican. Many Republican leaders
associated with this title were WASPs like Charles Mathias of
Maryland. Liberal Republican New York Republican U.S. Senator
Jacob Javits,who had an Americans for Democratic Action rating
above 90% and an American Conservative Union rating below 10%,
was Jewish. This title included moderates such as As time went
on, the local Republican parties tended to nominate Catholic
candidates who appealed to middle class, social values-laden
concerns, such as George Pataki, Al D'Amato, Rick Lazio, Tom
Ridge, Bobby Jindal, 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.
Recent use of the term
The term "Rockefeller Republican"
is now somewhat archaic (Nelson Rockefeller having died in
1979), and Republicans with these views are now generally
referred to as simply "moderate Republicans" or, pejoratively,
Republican In Name Only. The retired four-star generals Colin
Powell and David Petraeus have both described themselves as
"Rockefeller Republicans." 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.