The passing of President George H.W. Bush this weekend marks the loss of an American leader and the end of one of the most powerful and influential party factions in United States history: the Rockefeller Republicans.
The Rockefeller Republicans, so named because of their association with Nelson Rockefeller, were the last of the Republican Party’s original, Northeastern establishment.
This was a group of people for whom ideology played second fiddle to stability and pragmatism, two things that our current politics could use more of. George H.W. Bush was the last prominent member of this faction in American politics, and the last to wield presidential power. The only Rockefeller Republican left on the national stage is Susan Collins, a senator from Maine.
They were also called “country club Republicans” due to their affluence and tendency to support pro-business policies.
In this regard, they were similar to the modern GOP, but only somewhat. While it’s true that the old school Republicans disliked organized labor, they did not have the same intense contempt for it and for the federal government that the later movement conservatives would.
So, what happened to the Rockefeller Republicans? Most of them, being pragmatists, took the conservative movement’s rise in stride, and re-aligned themselves accordingly, to varying degrees of success. Others simply retired from politics or became moderate Democrats.
They were, in the end, victim to the rising tide of polarization which has consumed American politics in the past three decades, beginning with Newt Gingrich in 1994 and culminating with Donald Trump in 2016.