"We've got to get the Rockefeller Republicans out of the party," a fellow told me in Minnesota recently. Or was it Arizona? Or Wilkes-Barre, Pa.? Actually, I think it was all three. I hear it all the time as I travel around the country speaking to conservative groups.
For those of you who don't know, the Rockefeller Republicans -- named after the former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller -- were the liberal, mostly Northeastern wing of the Republican Party.
Liberal Republican sounds like a contradiction in terms today, particularly for young people who grew up in the age of strictly ideological parties. But for most of American history, the parties weren't strongly ideological institutions so much as coalitions of interests. There were very liberal Republicans and very conservative Democrats. Occasionally parties were defined -- or indeed created -- over single issues (the GOP was created to fight slavery, for instance), but the idea that you can guess someone is a conservative or liberal just by their party ID is a fairly recently development.
The Rockefeller Republicans were authentic liberals well to the left of Richard Nixon, who would today be considered to be left of the GOP on most issues. They liked the New Deal, or at least grew to like it. Rockefeller Republicans believed in fiscal rectitude, but only to the point where they thought the party should be, in Newt Gingrich's cutting description, "tax collectors for the welfare state." Abortion didn't become a big issue until after they were already in decline, but they were unabashedly pro-choice. In fact, the Rockefellers were among the earliest and most ardent supporters of population control and eugenics.
And guess what? The Rockefeller Republicans are basically extinct, at least among GOP officeholders. Sure, there are a handful of descendants with some Rockefellerian DNA hiding in the woods of New York, Maine and Pennsylvania. But even they are on the endangered species list.
And yet, there's this idea that they control the party. Even Pat Buchanan, who knows this history better than most, recently wrote that the current battle between the GOP establishment and the forces allied with Ted Cruz is essentially a replay of the old fight between Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller.