On 30 April 1968 Nelson Rockefeller, the moderate Republican governor of New York, stepped before a podium in the state capitol of Albany and announced that he was throwing his hat in the ring for the Republican presidential nomination.
Rockefeller said he was disturbed by the “dramatic and unprecedented events of the past weeks,” namely the assassination of Martin Luther King on 4 April and the subsequent riots that rocked dozens of American cities.
The announcement, however, came a mere six weeks after Rockefeller had announced in midtown Manhattan, after a “realistic appraisal” of his standing within the Republican Party, that he would not be running for president in 1968.
In retrospect, Rockefeller’s vacillation should not have elicited much shock. After all, announcing whether he would or would not be running for president had become a quadrennial rite of passage — one accompanied by an uncanny ability to choose the wrong moment either to take the presidential plunge or stay on the sidelines.
Rockefeller’s back-and-forth in 1968 was the product, however, of a deeper and more enduring political obstacle. More than just some garden-variety, “me-too” moderate Republican— Rockefeller was a true believer. A technocrat and a reformer, he brimmed with ideas for how to use the power of the public purse to alleviate hardship and create opportunity. As governor of New York, he had transformed the state, investing billions in new government-led projects and initiatives. Nelson Rockefeller was a doer. Unfortunately for him, he sought to lead a political party ideologically opposed to doing.
Rockefeller’s role as the standard bearer of the moderate wing of the GOP was not supposed to have occurred in 1968. He had twice tried previously to win the Republican nomination. In 1960, he had first announced he was not running and then later changed his mind. His last minute agreement with the eventual nominee Richard Nixon to modify the party platform sparked howls of outrage from conservatives. Four years his ill-fated effort would be capped off by a tumultuous appearance at the Republican National Convention in which he was booed by supporters of Barry Goldwater for taking aim at rising extremism within the party.
By 1968 it seemed Rocky’s time had come and gone. Instead, Michigan Governor George Romney would take up the moderate mantle. Though his disastrous ’68 campaign is best remembered for his comment that he’d been brainwashed into initially supporting the war in Vietnam, in reality, Romney’s biggest problem was that like Rockefeller he was too liberal for the GOP’s increasing conservatism.
Only weeks before the New Hampshire primary – and with his poll numbers showing a likely catastrophic defeat – Romney threw in the towel. Most observers expected Rockefeller to jump in, but neither he nor his staff could figure out a way to make it work. Not only did he lack strong grassroots support and expected to get trounced in presidential primaries, many Republican leaders wanted him to run simply because they expected him to lose and thus give Nixon a boost on his way to the nomination.
For Rockefeller, who like most politicians of that era, loathed Nixon, that was a bridge too far.
Weeks later, with Johnson out of the race and Robert Kennedy looking to many like the possible Democratic nominee (and a more attractive national candidate) Rockefeller believed the political situation had moved in his favor. Eschewing the state primaries, Rockefeller would make his pitch directly to GOP convention delegates, namely that he was the candidate best able to help the party take back the White House.
Rockefeller’s entire campaign, in fact, would be predicated on his weak standing inside the party. An internal campaign memo from late May 1968 described Rockefeller’s dilemma in vivid detail: “While the current campaign obviously involves the Republican nomination and not a general election, the essential target of public policy is strength in the polls—and not the presumed preconceptions of GOP delegates.”
His spring campaign accentuated issues with more national than conservative appeal. He talked about “restructuring” and “streamlining” the “federal establishment” so that “the government is able to deliver on its major policy objective.” He called for a massive new federal commitment of $150 billion over ten years in new spending for America’s cities—$100 billion of which would come from an “aroused citizenry and a proud government.”
And he refused to back down from his long-standing pro-civil rights record. “This would insult not only my integrity, but your intelligence,” said Rockefeller at a speech in Atlanta.
Rockefeller’s move leftward became even more pronounced after Kennedy’s assassination. “I think the people who supported Bobby Kennedy are going to come to me now,” he confidently told his staff. Rockefeller’s speechwriter Joseph Persico would archly note, “No Kennedy supporters were going to be delegates to the Republican convention.”
Behind the scenes, Rockefeller tried to neutralize conservative opposition to his candidacy. A trip to South Carolina to woo the state’s convention delegates produced mixed results. GOP state chairman Harry Dent reported that those present realized Rockefeller was “without horns or a forked tail” but they also found that, “as far as the Democratic choice goes . . . he was the preferable choice.”
In fact, polls showed at the same time that Rockefeller was improving his standing among Democrats and independents; he was losing it among Republicans. “The closer he comes to demonstrating that he might be the one Republican to win in November,” wrote pollster Louis Harris, “the weaker he becomes in his own party.” That July in Miami Beach at the Republican National Convention, Rockefeller would lose to Nixon. But he’d also watch the ideological direction of the party move even more dramatically to the right, as the greatest threat to Nixon came not from the left but from the political right, in the short-lived campaign of California governor and conservative darling, Ronald Reagan.
Indeed, for GOP moderates, 1968 would represent a crucial turning point. Though they continued to play a leading role in the party for the next two decades, only with rare exception would the language of Republican liberalism, as championed by politicians like Rockefeller, feature prominently in the party’s presidential nomination battles.
In the years to come the Republican Party would be dominated by a new version of “me-too-ism”— namely, persistent competition among presidential hopefuls to move further and further toward the right. The trajectory of Republican politics that became more conservative in 1968 would gather speed in the years afterward—so much so that today moderate Republicanism is something read about in history books, not practiced by actual politicians.
Feature Image:White House Mansion by skeeze. Public Domain via Pixabay