Amid little fanfare, former Governor of New York George Pataki announced his candidacy for the Presidency last week. Before the announcement, few Republicans had heard of him—which is unusual, given that Pataki has more experience and patriotic brevets than do most of the candidates in the current GOP field. The New York Times reports that Pataki is “a three-term governor of New York, who forced Mario M. Cuomo from office and led his state through the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks…” In years past, such qualifications might have placed Pataki at the front of the GOP pack, not trailing far behind.
But these are certainly not the good old days. Pataki is about as much of a Republican as Senator Jim Webb of Virginia is a Democrat—which is to say, by contemporary standards, not very much of a Republican at all. Pataki is an old-line Northeastern Republican, coming out of the tradition and environment that shaped Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Dewey, and Nelson Rockefeller—three other 20th-century GOP Governors of New York. The last of those, Rockefeller, bequeathed his name to the breed of socially moderate, fiscally prudent Republicans that once counted among their number George Romney, William Scranton, Thomas Kuchel, Jacob Javits, and, in more recent times, Lincoln Chafee, Olympia Snowe, and John McCain.
Those last three now share something in common: they’re no longer Rockefeller Republicans. Snowe retired from politics in disgust, while Chafee defected to the Democratic Party and has now announced his own presidential campaign. McCain, the former maverick, eventually sold his soul to the conservative Right in a futile bid for the Presidency, and again later in a successful defense against a conservative challenger for his Arizona Senate seat.
These three politicians each had a different response to the same political reality—the slow decline of the moderates and progressives in the Grand Old Party and the ascendancy and eventual hegemony of the conservatives. This half-century long conservative coup is brilliantly narrated by Geoffrey Kabaservice in Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. Kabaservice’s book contains few discussions of political theory and many accounts of pitched political battles—Taft vs. Dewey, McCarthy vs. Eisenhower, Rockefeller vs. Goldwater, Romney vs. Nixon—leading up to the eventual period of conservative dominance that began with the Reagan Revolution. After Reagan’s era, there were no major national leaders or movements representing the Rockefeller strain in the party. And from the 1980s onward, the GOP grew only more and more conservative, until by 2010, insurgent Tea Party candidates could call even politicians far to the right of Ronald Reagan “Republicans in Name Only.”
This was partly due to the superior organization and political tactics of the conservatives. But it was also due to the fact that the conservatives possessed a coherent political ideology that appealed to the masses of white middle- and working-class Americans. This demographic was typically morally traditionalist, economically conservative, and harbored a suspicion of East Coast elites. The excesses of the Counterculture, the Sexual Revolution, and the violent later stages of the Civil Rights Movement, accompanied by the Democratic Party’s lurch to the left in the 1970s, drove many moderately conservative Americans into the arms of the movement conservative Republicans. The Rockefeller Republicans never made a significant attempt to produce a moderate ideology that rejected the radical extremism of the New Left and the reactionary antics of the Right, and that appealed to the traditionalist but moderate consciousness of Middle America.
In fact, one of Rule and Ruin’s crucial themes is the failure of moderate and progressive Republicans to establish a viable political infrastructure. In particular, Kabaservice lambasts Nelson Rockefeller as an egoistic playboy who poured his fortunes into successive doomed presidential campaigns rather than investing his wealth into the political, financial, and intellectual infrastructure the moderate Republicans needed. In contrast, the conservatives established National Review, the Young Americans for Freedom, the Heritage Foundation, and other institutions that still exist today.
There were a few attempts by the moderates to match this activism on the part of the conservatives. The Ripon Society, with its publication The Ripon Forum, kept the moderate intellectual atmosphere alive at least for a time. The society’s manifesto is an excellent statement of moderate principles, even if they have largely lain dormant in the contemporary GOP.
Some political figures made more ambitious attempts to codify moderate Republicanism into books. The most famous of these is A Republican Looks at His Party, by Dwight Eisenhower’s Undersecretary of Labor, Arthur Larson.
But the most concise yet circumspective manifesto of moderate and progressive Republicanism was a little book by Senator Jacob Javits called Order of Battle: A Republican’s Call to Reason. Senator Javits, a contemporary of Rockefeller and a fellow New Yorker, wrote in protest against the Goldwater wing’s 1964 takeover of Republican politics at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.
Order of Battle prominently features Senator Javits’s “choice of ancestors,” his political and intellectual genealogy of the moderate faction of the Republican Party. Rather than invoking Thomas Jefferson’s paeans to liberty as the Goldwaterites did, Javits traced the GOP’s lineage down a more historically accurate path. The “fathers” of the true Republican tradition, in Javits’s view, were Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. And their heritage was continued not, as Michael Lind now claims, through Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson but through such moderate 20th-century Republicans as Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Arthur Vandenberg, and Dwight Eisenhower. This is a tradition that is conservative, progressive, nationalist, and capitalist all at the same time—“Hamiltonian,” in David Brooks’s contemporary parlance.
Javits himself insists that the unifying principle that moved his diverse political heroes is fidelity to the national interest—in his words, “that interest…which can bring disparate groups together in a consensus of national importance and national quality. It is that interest…which is consistent with the destiny of our country.” He goes on to discuss the national interest in terms of union, security, opportunity, and liberty, arguing that a balance of these principles is best for the American people.
Javits holds a complex theoretical view of the national interest, but a look at the legacies of Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln, and the first Roosevelt illuminates what it looks like in practice. Alexander Hamilton supported a strong government that could set the basic foundations of the industrial economy. Henry Clay pioneered a government that worked to build a uniting public infrastructure. Abraham Lincoln, aside from literally keeping the country together, supported pro-middle class land policies and increased federal funding of education. Theodore Roosevelt instituted policies to undercut monopolies, protect consumers, and preserve natural resources.
In short, Javits’s four political heroes favored a national government that was energetic, but not suffocating; limited, but not weak. It was a government that needed broad authority to accomplish nebulous and evolving goals, including protecting the unity of the country, preserving opportunities for individuals to rise in society, and promoting a vigorous, dynamic national economy.
Such a government would not attempt to command the economy and use government as a tool to ameliorate society, as the New Deal Democrats tended to do. Nor would this government simply step aside and let the states or unbridled economic forces do their work. As Adam Garfinkle has put it, it would neither “get in the way” nor “get out of the way,” but would “pave the way.”
In 2015, such a Javitsian Republican agenda would follow a moderate but vigorous course. It would place a huge emphasis on next-generation energy and transportation infrastructure, alongside increased funding for technological innovation. It would support massive increases in education funding while demanding greater accountability from the education bureaucracy, and probably endorsing a diversity of educational options too. The government would be seen not as a benevolent manager of the economy but as an engine driving its development.
It would also encourage incremental reform on other fiscal issues. Taxation would be made simpler and fairer, perhaps by reducing the number of tax brackets and levying a tax on capital gains and dividends above a certain threshold. Regulations across the board would be modernized and simplified, with a bias towards promoting entrepreneurial opportunities. Environmental protection would acknowledge that technological advances have decoupled humans from the environment to a certain degree, land use regulations would be geared towards homeownership and middle-class opportunities, and health and consumer protection regulations would be updated for new developments in science and medicine.
Entitlements would be on the chopping block for a massive retooling. Progressive Republicans would support the continuation of the entitlements that have defined the 21st Century, but reform them to be sustainable, more personal, and minimal. New entitlements for an Information Age economy would be rolled out, such as a youth entitlement tied to national service, or shift from universal retirement service to universal unemployment insurance.
While working to expand the national pot of gold, progressive Republicans would work to fight the influence of wealth and special interests on the political process, through campaign finance reform, party reform, and anti-plutocratic efforts. While working to restrain the influence of big business, they would also reform the federal bureaucracy into something more manageable than the bloated monster it is now.
On social issues, Javitsian Republicans would reject the party’s social philosophy guided by religious traditionalism but maintain its conservative temperament. These Republicans would support abortion rights and same-sex marriage, but without abandoning the commitment to religious liberty, and without seeking to impose these values on others by means of government coercion.
Some Republicans have adopted one or more of these items on the moderate agenda, but none have engaged in a wholesale rethinking of their political philosophies.
Senator Javits’s great lament was the fact that the national interest tradition in the Republican Party was, in the 1960s, rapidly giving way to the reactionary and radical conservatism of the modern conservative movement. He was right to worry. By the 1980s, his political tradition was all but dead. By the 2010s, its coffin was riddled with nails.
But absence makes the heart grow fonder. Today, centrist, reformist, and bipartisan political organizations dot the Washington scene, aching for an option not on offer by the Republican and Democratic establishments. David Brooks occasionally writes of a revived Hamiltonianism in the New York Times, while Adam Garfinkle and William Bonvillian have echoed such sentiments here at TAI. The sense that the FDR economics and McGovern politics of the Democratic Party and the Reagan-Squared policies of the Republican Party are insufficient—pernicious even—is shared by multitudes of American centrists. Theoretically, a presidential contender like George Pataki should be at the head of a national movement seeking a revival of centrist politics, at least among disaffected moderate Republicans.
For various reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay, that’s not about to happen. Most seasoned political observers know the inevitable fate of third parties, reform movements, and political associations: They rise, they make a little bit of change and a whole lot of noise, and they fade away without a trace. Similarly, GOP candidates from dead factions of the party tend not to do so well, as Lincoln Chafee, Olympia Snowe, and John McCain discovered in their own time. George Pataki undoubtedly knows all this, and therefore can’t seriously be thinking that he has anything like a shot at becoming the 45th President of the United States.
The best that can be hoped for is that Pataki’s campaign will bring an old tradition back to the public spotlight, if only for a few months before the GOP selects its nominee. But it remains highly unlikely that Governor Pataki’s campaign will do much at all to restore the Rockefeller Republican tradition he’s a part of. Unlike Ron Paul, he’s not particularly charismatic, and unlike Ross Perot, he doesn’t have stacks of cash to finance his ambitions and pronouncements. As things currently stand, Pataki will at best be little more than a sideshow in the three-ring circus that the 2016 primary season is fast becoming.
One wonders what how things would turn out if Pataki put one of the lessons of Kabaservice’s book into practice: that the key to any successful political movement’s longevity is its political, financial, and intellectual infrastructure. In particular, intellectual infrastructure seems to be the most important ingredient to success in this ideological age. Perhaps there’s room inside the Beltway for a Pataki Institute for Public Policy or the like: an institution dedicated to the formulation of a moderate Republican policy agenda and political philosophy.
Such a Rockefeller Republican rendition of the Center for American Progress or the Heritage Foundation would be welcome. Even the current moderate Republican advocacy groups operating in DC these days—the Republican Main Street Partnership and the remnants of the Ripon Society—are designed to operate within the current conservative context rather than to spark a new movement. If the Rockefeller Republicans are going to return in a new, 21st-century incarnation, it will have to be from the ground up.