Nelson Rockefeller: Ego And Fiscal Recklessness

February 16th, 2009 at 10:28 pm | 6 Comments |

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Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller remains the best-known moderate Republican of recent times, malady to the extent that even today anyone who diverges from the conservative line of the GOP may be referred to as a “Rockefeller Republican.” As the grandson of Senate Republican chieftain Nelson Aldrich and Standard Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, he was advantageously placed for a career in Republican politics. Forceful, magnetic, handsome in a square-headed way, and of course immensely rich, Rockefeller was a four-term governor of New York, the leading light of the GOP’s progressive wing, and one of the dominant political figures of his era. Connoisseurs of political horseflesh considered him the likeliest Republican to win the presidency in 1960, ’64, and ’68, but he was never able to overcome the conservative resistance within his party that prevented him from gaining the nomination. He continued to harbor Oval Office hopes into the ‘70s, though the closest he came was as Gerald Ford’s vice president from 1974 to 1976. Despite his assets and abilities, Rockefeller did not produce a lasting political legacy. Ultimately his failures dragged down the moderate Republican cause.

Rockefeller was the target of Garry Wills’ famous barb that while first-generation millionaires give us libraries, succeeding generations think they should give us themselves. In truth, the ultra-rich usually avoid subjecting themselves to elective politics. Rockefeller was an exception because he was more ambitious than most billionaires’ sons. “Ever since I was a kid,” he recalled, he had wanted to be president. “After all, when you think of what I had, what else was there to aspire to?”

His first major step toward that goal came with his upset victory in the New York gubernatorial election of 1958, which immediately thrust him toward the top of political handicappers’ lists for the 1960 presidential election. In addition to his money and celebrity, “Rocky” (as he was known to the press and public) had considerable political resources even at that early stage of his career. He had demonstrated foreign policy experience, particularly in Central and South America (from his service in the Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower administrations); a reputation for innovative and activist government; an ability to attract the most talented advisors (such as Harvard professor Henry Kissinger); a capacity for glad-handing and blintz-eating; and a sophisticated and technologically advanced public relations operation. 

No less an authority than Robert F. Kennedy believed that if Rockefeller had been the Republican candidate in 1960, he would have won the election. But he failed to gain sufficient support in the GOP primaries in 1960, and again in 1964 when he lost the decisive California primary to Barry Goldwater, despite winning 56 of the state’s 58 counties. He mounted a more formidable challenge to Nixon at the 1968 GOP convention than is commonly known, coming within a handful of votes of stopping his opponent on the first ballot, but fell short in his final quest for the presidency.

Rockefeller might well have attained the Oval Office had he not been Public Enemy Number One for GOP conservatives, even provoking the creation of the Conservative Party of New York to mount candidates against the Governor and his Republican allies. Some of the reasons for that enmity reflect credit on Rockefeller, such as his fervent advocacy of civil rights and criticism of far-right kookery, which led to his being howled down when he attempted to speak at the ’64 convention. His divorce and remarriage to a younger, previously-married woman, which likely cost him the ’64 primaries, no longer seems quite as scandalous it did at the time. Some of the hatred toward him reflected an angry and enduring American populism that abominated the Rockefellers along with the East Coast, bankers, cities, cosmopolitanism, modernism, ethnic diversity, and other perceived alien forces.

But not all the conservative criticism was unmerited. Rockefeller represented a commingling of financial and political power that worried many liberals as well, and much of the banking and insurance legislation he advanced as New York’s governor was highly beneficial to his family’s interests. Rockefeller presented himself as a hard-liner in foreign policy, taking a firm stand against Communism and in favor of American involvement in the Vietnam war, and he alienated liberals with his punitive laws against the sale and use of drugs and his decision to forcibly suppress a riot at Attica prison in 1971, resulting in the deaths of 29 inmates and 10 hostages. In other respects, however, he was hard to tell apart from many liberal Democrats. He dispensed patronage on a scale that would have impressed Tammany Hall. He attempted to out-do Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in producing vast numbers of government programs at correspondingly vast expense. He did not share most moderate Republicans’ preference for decentralization and skepticism regarding government’s limitations. And while he liked to say that he was a financial conservative since “No one has as much to conserve as I do,” he had jettisoned his early sense of fiscal restraint by the late ‘60s. He made end-runs around the state constitution and engaged in financial gimmickry that helped bring on New York’s near-bankruptcy in the mid-‘70s.

Rockefeller never understood the extent to which he was anathema to the GOP’s right wing, and he followed an inconsistent strategy of alternately attacking and then abasing himself before the conservatives. At times he showed a willingness to match the intraparty skullduggery of the right, offering secret support to prevent Phyllis Schlafly from gaining the presidency of the National Federation of Republican Women and maintaining a spy network within conservative circles. But he failed to do for moderates what a few wealthy individuals were doing at that time for the conservatives: building an enduring political infrastructure of opinion journals, think tanks, donor networks, and grass-roots organizational support. Rockefeller’s inability to work effectively with other moderate Republicans (notably New York City mayor John Lindsay) further stymied the movement, and his wealth and status meant that no other moderate truly was taken seriously as a presidential candidate or potential leader of the moderate forces. As Vice President, Rockefeller made no real effort to build up the GOP, adding to the perception of Republican moderates as spoilers uninterested in party unity except on their terms. 

Conservatives have something to learn from Rockefeller’s electoral success and the wide appeal of “Rockefeller Republicanism,” with its support for civil rights, civil liberties, education, and the environment. But for Republican moderates, Rockefeller’s history stands as a cautionary tale.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Bulldoglover100

    A Cautionary tale for certain but what does one do? Listen to the far right? those who think the liberal and moderates will support their choice? Not going to happen so where does one look for that next great leader?
    Palin is a joke and cost us 2008, Romney is a Mormon and that won’t fly with many members of the GOP, Jindal is probably the best bet but he is not as vicious as Palin or Romney so may fade into the backdrop.
    “Rocky” may not have reached the top spot but he was more realistic than many in his own party. This is where the hard right always pulls the GOP down, their inability to deal with reality.

  • HollywoodBill

    Good stuff Bulldoglover as usual. Since we’re now both the target of a cyberpsychopath on this site, it’s heartening to see your valued comments still appearing. While Rockefeller Republicans has become a perjorative term to the Revival Tent Republicans now dominating the GOP, the spirit still continues and may be the way out of the wilderness. And the Palinistas still refuse to believe that a Dem in the White House is preferable to a totally unacceptable candidate like Palin. As for Jindal, the Louisiana excorcist is a regional candidate wih no appeal outside of Dixie and the Bible Belt. The moderate wing, or the liberatarian Western states wing of the GOP will never go along with an inferior candidate like Sarah Palin or Jindal..

  • dendup

    I’m not sure what lessons the current right or left can learn from NR – he really was a political party of 1 in a state and time of some very unique characteristics. His overuse of public benefit authorities and his “edifiice complex” combined with the deindustrilzaton of the state were behind the state’s fiscal problems. I haven’t heard the phrase “Rockefellar Rep.” in a long time. The few remaining moderate are quite a bit more conservative on social and fiscal issues than he was.

  • Cforchange

    think more at the demise of the Northeastern Republican was the ideology shift to where it became totally evil to pay taxes and other business obligations. So the masses migrated to new lands where focus was money making off of developing new infastructure versus paying to maintain what was already there. Just leave your obligations to pensioned employees and state governments that provided the public works, head to new lands and start new business. When the bills are due there – time to head overseas. Snowbird workers went right along with the plan.
    After 40 years of this behavior, it remains to be seen what is left. I was raised by and then married Northeast Republican’s who believed that paying taxes was a good thing – it meant you made a profit. Making money is a good thing – paying the bills associated with profits is duty. The first intelligent, charasmatic, business wise and socially reasonable Republican candidate to rise up from our current mess will take the nation by storm – I bet this candidate will come from the Northeast.

  • HollywoodBill

    Good observations and inspiring personal history Cforchange. Out in the West, the decline of the GOP is due to the rise of the Southern moralizing busybody brigade who want to and are turning the GOP into a tiny, tattered traveling revival tent. I wholeheartedly agree that the future of the GOP is going to come from a very Democratic area of the country, like New England or the Pacific Coast. A candidate who is capable of reaching people in a different way and creating a real New Majority. One guarantee is that an incredible defeat of historic proportions is in store for the Republicans should they be so idiotic as to even consider the totally unacceptable Palin or Jindal for the top spot in 2012.

  • Cforchange

    Yeah I don’t think the ticket has been id’d. Palin has extra, extra baggage, only has experience managing in good times plus is she really something new and different – tax issue or even just taking the per diem in the first place says alot. All the others just don’t have screen pop which is all Palin brings. I’m looking for the reincarnation of Senator John Heinz…. We need a hit out of the ballpark.