Timothy Noah

Rocky's Ghost

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A specter is haunting the GOP--the specter of Nelson Rockefeller.

It's a curious paradox. The Republican party is more captive to its wingnuts than at any time since 1964. Yet three of the party's four most important figures right now--Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Mitch McConnell--began life as Rockefeller Republicans. (The fourth, House Speaker John Boehner, was always a wingnut.)

Nelson Rockefeller, you will recall, was vice-president under Gerald Ford and governor of New York from 1959 to 1973. But his significance in national politics was that he led the liberal wing of the Republican party throughout the 1960s. Sometime during the 1970s liberal Republicans became mostly extinct and the few Republicans who weren't conservative got rechristened "moderate" Republicans, a species that today is mostly extinct, too.

Romney is the son of George Romney, a liberal, Rockefeller-style Republican and Michigan governor who in 1968 posed a serious threat to Richard Nixon's quest for the Republican presidential nomination until Romney famously said that the reason he'd initially supported the war in Vietnam (by then he opposed it) was that he'd allowed American generals to "brainwash" him. The comment was foolish but innocuous to opponents of the war, but to the war's supporters it was a treasonous implicit comparison of the U.S. military to Chinese communists, who were alleged to have used hypnosis and "truth serum" (of the type that haunts Frank Sinatra's dreams in The Manchurian Candidate) to brainwash U.S. prisoners of war during the Korean conflict. (In fact, what the Chinese used was straight-up torture, which elicited many false confessions.) The rueful "brainwash" crack finished George Romney off. Mitt Romney, who was devoted to his father, spent his pre-presidential political life in Massachusetts, where he worked hard to establish his bona fides as a moderate.

Gingrich began his political career as a Rockefeller Republican, and even as he moved rightward he maintained enough moderate positions to draw suspicion from his fellow conservatives. McConnell also started out a moderate Republican in the Rockefeller mold, though in his case no ideological trace of that period in his life remains. There are no Rockefeller Republicans in captivity today, except maybe Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, Maine's two Republican senators. (Even Rockefeller wasn't really a Rockefeller Republican by the time he got to the White House, because the political spectrum had already shifted rightward.)

What do we know about how onetime Rockefeller Republicans survive in the post-Reagan era? Mostly they die off. But the ones who don't fight dirty when they run for president, if George H.W. Bush is any guide. The 1988 general election was hands down the ugliest of my lifetime--Willie Horton, Pledge of Allegiance, etc.--and the reason was that Poppy Bush was desperate to shed his "wimp" image and demonstrate his conservative bona fides. The vicious edge to Gingrich's and McConnell's political maneuvering in Congress probably owe something to a similar need to dispel any worries conservatives might harbor about these politicians' toughness (though at least in Gingrich's case I think a lot of the nastiness was also innate). George W. Bush, the son and grandson of Rockefeller (or at least Rockefeller-ish) Republicans, who governed Texas mostly as a moderate, fought dirty in the 2000 primaries (though he kept it mostly clean for the general--until the Florida recount) and had a perpetual chip on his shoulder that was hard to square with his privileged background. If either Romney or Gingrich is the Republican nominee (and I feel pretty certain it will be Romney), I expect a campaign as dirty as the one Poppy fought in the 1988 general. Romney has the same I'll-do-anything desperation to please that Poppy had, and for Gingrich fighting dirty is a default setting.

How do self-hating, or ex-, Rockefeller Republicans govern? That's harder to know. Poppy Bush governed mostly as a moderate. His son (perhaps in Oedipal rebellion) governed mostly as a conservative. Moderates tend more than ideologues to be other-directed types who respond to external pressure. But in the Dubya era the external pressures that mattered were the ones from within the Republican party itself, probably because the GOP had been out of power. (Also, Dubya wasn't all that other-directed. If he were he wouldn't have been such a schmuck in his youth.) If Romney is elected, I think the dominant pressures will once again be from within the GOP, for the same reason--the GOP has been out of power. Also, the GOP is more angry and more conservative than it's been since 1964. If Gingrich is elected--and I must say, I have difficulty taking the idea seriously enough even to type those words--the pressure from within the GOP may be even greater, because in addition to everything else GOP leaders really can't stand Gingrich on a personal level. Neither Romney nor Gingrich strikes me as the type of guy to say, in his inaugural speech, that we must strive to be kinder and gentler--Romney because he'll still be trying to smother the Rocky within, Gingrich because he doesn't like being kind and gentle, and probably didn't even when Rocky was his hero. So there's little hope that being vestigially Rockefeller Republicans will moderate Romney's or Gingrich's behavior. Mostly it just pushes them rightward. I almost wish their roots were in the John Birch Society instead.

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