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david bratThe Rockefellers get such a bum wrap among conservatives these days. But if you are as excited as I am by David Brat’s historic defeat over Eric Cantor, maybe it is time to dig up the bones of those old GOP centrists.

The Rockefeller Republicans were a coalition of Northeast “moderates” who contended with Barry Goldwater’s Southern and Mid-Western “conservatives” for control of the Republican Party leading up to the 1980s. They are named after Nelson Rockefeller, who served as Gerald Ford’s Vice President from 1974-1977, but their most important member is probably Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who was Ambassador to South Vietnam during the war and ran as Nixon’s vice president during the unsuccessful 1960 bid. Mr. Nixon himself has been called a Rockefeller Republican too, which is worth considering.

So what were the Rockefellers all about—or, more importantly, what made them the moderates rather than the conservatives? We know that neither camp was going to score a 100% on the social conservative scale: for right or wrong, Mr. Goldwater’s camp were early Republican supporters of gay rights, and Mr. Rockefeller’s were known to entertain pro-choice ideas. The Rockefellers were pro-civil rights, where the Goldwaters were more inclined to let individual states chose their own policies. (Conservative or not, I come down with the Rockefellers.)

The real line in the sand is what has become the division between the Old Right and the New Right: free-market economics. The Rockefeller Republicans were scions of old New England merchant families. They were descended from ship-builders, railroad tycoons—you name it, they had a big hand in what we could call “the industries that built America.” And they were keenly interested in keeping jobs inside America. Yes, they were known to indulge in a bit of isolationism—at least before Vietnam—but not out of any cowardice. The Rockefellers knew that there was work to be done inside this country, and were not interested in gallivanting overseas looking for someone else’s problems to fix.

The Rockefellers were also the heirs to the Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft legacy of trust-busting Republicans. They were probably the last Republicans to be thoroughly concerned with the working-class. It is a perfect example of the noblesse oblige effect: Having inherited an incredible amount of political and economic privilege, the New England aristocracy took great pains to use that power for the benefit of those less fortunate, going so far as to count themselves among the earliest “establishment” (Democrat or Republican) supporters of trade unions. But this was not the welfare state—on the contrary, the Rockefellers were interested in making sure American industry could compete with foreign markets and that American workers were safe in their own country. It was not about hand-outs; it was about striking the balance between being business-friendly and worker-friendly.

Does this sound like David Brat? His explicit opposition to crony capitalism is how he earned his landmark victory. And that is a good start. If he is a Rockefeller Republican—allowing for principles to be adapted to contemporary needs—we can expect him to be the first in a new wave of Republicans looking to turn back big business in favor of the average working American. We can expect a refreshing break from class warfare rhetoric, bridging the gap between Romney’s 53%ers and Occupy’s 99%ers. We can expect a government that really understands that, as G.K. Chesterton said, “the problem with capitalism is not too many capitalists, but not enough capitalists.” The American people are seeing a Republican Party that wants Americans to be dependent on big business, and a Democratic Party that wants Americans to be dependent on big government. Whoever gets to the middle first is going to the White House in 2016. Whoever moves toward sustainable, bottom-up industry and agriculture is going to win America’s hearts and minds. And if it is the Republicans—that is, if they are rediscovering their roots in humane liberalism—authentic conservatism might yet have a place in the Grand Old Party.

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8 replies to this post
  1. I’m thinking (and I don’t want to catapult Mr. Brat into a position of “failure”) but maybe he’s a ROCKSTAR!

  2. Richard Nixon, who I have (over the years), come to consider as having been America’s best President of the XXth century, was not – to my mind – a Rockefeller Republican. Nixon was, remember, a competitor for both the Goldwater Republicans and the Rockefeller Republicans; playing them off eachother with great mastery. Nixon deserves to be considered in a category of his own: Nixon was an American Republican.

  3. Those who were not there cannot possible recall the contempt which the Establishment (Rockefeller) wing of the Republican Party had for the Young Turks of the Goldwater movement. Nor the bruised spleen of those (conservatives) who shouted down Rocky at the Cow palace in 1964. There is bad blood which goes back 50 years.
    That Mister Brat is more complex than the blathering heads on TV can conceive does not mean any more than he is his own person. In an age of marching clones from Left and Right, that is, at least, refreshing.
    The danger, of course, is that he will be persuaded to let “handlers” consult up his image into the appearance of every other politician out there.
    Speaking of complicated (and conflicted) personalities, Mister Reith is correct about Nixon. He was in a category all his own. While, even today, there are some who still hold him in distain for his “opportunism”, and others for his failures, we have had worse Presidents. As Spock said, quoting the old Vulcan proverb,.
    “Only Nixon can go to China.”

  4. Nonsense, Peter. Nixon’s dream was a single payer health care system. He was a centralizer in the most contemporary sense.

  5. Mr. Davis: the first and only major faction of cons to turn against crony capitalism was the Tea Party (including the sensible among the Paulists). The single question of essence which determines one’s position here does not concern “big” or “small” business at all (Marxist bywords), but rather, bailouts. If one builds with the crooked timber of the bailout, then no crony capitalism-detractor is he. And Rockefeller Republicans crafted the ship out of TARP-styled, neocon, statist slurry.

  6. Well, I never said Nixon was perfect, only that he was the best President of the XXth century (which, I understand, is counterintuitive and debatable – but it’s just my opinion).

    In terms of his relations to the Goldwater and the Rockefeller Republicans, Nixon supported Goldwater in 1964 (first by remaining neutral, then officially on JUne 30th when he started to campaign fo AUH2O) – and he was one of the few “establishment” Republicans to campaign across the country for Goldwater with such vigor, while all of the other Republicans were hemming and hawing about how they were destined to lose with such an “extremist” candidate. Nixon did his best to help the conservative cause in ’64, and was handsomely rewarded by conservatives in ’68, when he didn’t have to prove his conservative credentials to anyone – he had done it in ’64. That’s just historical fact. Now – this did not mean that Nixon was a Goldwater Republican (although it certainly means he wasn’t a Rockefeller Republican).

    In fact- neither Goldwater, nor Rockefeller ever became President. Richard Nixon did. It seems kind of backwards to me that two men who never became President get their own category (“Goldwater Republican” & “Rockefeller Republican”) into which we try to put the one guy who actually did become President – Dick Nixon.

    It’s like arguing over whether Reagan was a “Jack Kemp Republican” or a “Bob Dole Republican” while ignoring the fact that maybe Reagan was a – well – Reagan Republican.

    Of course, the whole subject of who is what kind of a Republican is an enlightening and fun topic – and I’m glad Mr. Davies brought it up. So long as the discussion respects Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment – it can only benefit us all.

    Finally, I would like everyone to know that I am such a nerd about the 1964 election that one of my proudest posessions on my bookshelf is a pristine copy of EVERY single issue of Newsweek printed in the year 1964 (yes, I am bragging like a geek).

  7. Ah – and Mr. Gordon, when you write that “the first and only major fanctions of Cons to turn against Crony Capitalism was the Tea Party”, you forget the Buchanan Brigades of the 1990s. We were the “first”, although maybe we weren’t “major” – but in ’96, when he dounded his strongest notes against Crony Capitalism, Buchanan sounded exotic, to say the least.

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