As the Democratic National Convention gets underway this week — sort of — Democrats, corporate media, and Hollywood are all at great pains to convince voters that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are just boring old moderates, nothing to be afraid of, and whatever you hear to the contrary from conservatives or the Donald Trump campaign is just fearmongering and distortions and lies.
One recent iteration of this narrative line is that Biden and Harris are “Rockefeller Republicans.”
During an episode of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” last week, Colbert and his guests, Mark McKinnon and Alex Wagner, co-hosts of Showtime’s “The Circus,” went on and on about how, contrary to what Republicans would have you believe, Biden and Harris are moderates, centrists, pragmatists.
“When I was a kid, we would have called them Rockefeller Republicans,” said Colbert, to the vigorous agreement of McKinnon and Wagner.
More disguising the ideology. @StephenAtHome Colbert: “When I was a kid we would have called Joe Biden and Kamala Harris ‘Rockefeller Republicans.’” @AlexWagner: “Yeah, yeah.” @mmckinnon: “Exactly right.” #LSSC @SHO_TheCircus pic.twitter.com/4feYlj9F6i
— Brent Baker (@BrentHBaker) August 14, 2020
Colbert, McKinnon, and Wagner have no clue what Rockefeller Republicans believed. If they did, they’d know that if anyone’s a Rockefeller Republican in this race, it’s not Biden or Harris. It’s Trump.
Not that the label fits perfectly, but it does a better job of describing Trump’s views on policy than Biden’s or Harris’s. Named after Nelson Rockefeller, the Republican governor of New York and later vice president under Gerald Ford, Rockefeller Republicans were the so-called “Eastern Establishment” of the GOP, known for being comfortable with big business, okay with government spending on the social safety net and infrastructure, and cozy with unions.
Trump — unlike, say, Paul Ryan Republicans — fits this mold better than any Republican president since Richard Nixon. He has no problem with a big social safety net or government spending on infrastructure.
Like Rockefeller Republicans of the 1950s and ‘60s who opposed the spread of Soviet communism, Trump has done more than any president, Republican or Democrat, to oppose communist China. Indeed, part of Trump’s appeal in 2016 was that he brought in many northern, white, blue-collar voters—the sort of voters who might have supported pro-union Rockefeller Republicans in the middle of the last century but gradually left the GOP as it became the party of Ronald Reagan.
Biden and Harris might be cozy with Wall Street, but the woke oligarchy they would usher in is a far cry from the kind of big government spending Rockefeller Republicans supported and that have become so thoroughly established as a feature of our national life that no one, in any party, really opposes them anymore. It’s the difference between taxpayers helping to fund large research budgets at major universities and taxpayers funding the Green New Deal.
But do you know what Rockefeller Republicans would never have supported? Pretty much everything the Democratic Party stands for today, and certainly almost nothing that either Biden or Harris have proposed as a policy on any subject. Calling them Rockefeller Republicans is a way to deny or obscure what the Democratic Party has become and whose interests it serves.
Hoping the ‘Rockefeller Republican’ Label Hides Reality
There is of course a good reason for Democrats to hide behind such a misleading historical label. The ongoing violence and unrest in the streets of several major cities are rightly associated at this point with the Democratic Party, not just because those cities have long been governed by Democrat mayors and political machines that have too often sided with rioters against the police, but also because the national Democrats have used the protests as opportunities for political grandstanding under the naïve assumption that the radicals in their party can be placated by mere gestures.
That’s why, for example, Sen. Mazie Hirono refused to breathe a word against Antifa in a recent Senate hearing on the riots. And why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quipped that “people will do what they do,” in response to a violent mob that pulled down a statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore, where Pelosi was born and raised and threw it into the harbor last month. At every turn, the message has been that such actions are righteous and necessary and any criticism of them—the sort of criticism you might hear from Trump and conservatives in the media—is racist.
Under these conditions, the nomination of Harris as Biden’s vice presidential running mate seemingly offers the media and Democratic leaders the chance to dial things back and assure voters that it’s okay to put Democrats in power, that a vote for Biden isn’t a break from the past or an endorsement of the chaos reigning in our cities, but is a vote for normalcy and competence—a return to the halcyon days of the Obama era, before all this unpleasantness. After all, Biden and Harris are just Rockefeller Republicans!
This narrative also masks the radicalism that both Biden and Harris have already endorsed as a matter of policy on everything from the environment, to guns, to religious freedom and freedom of speech. If they’re nothing more than a couple of milquetoast moderates, after all, what’s to fear? It’s not like they’re going to use the Department of Justice to prosecute pro-life activists, or stack the Supreme Court, or impose anti-Catholic religious tests on nominees for the federal bench. Right?
But of course, we can be reasonably sure they would do all this and more because they have told us they would. Throughout the primaries, Biden moved inexorably to the left on almost every major issue, only distinguishing himself from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders by slightly disagreeing with their plans to socialize the health-care system at the cost of some $30 trillion.
Indeed, far-left Democrats like Rep. Pramila Jayapal have bragged about pushing Biden to the left on a range of issues—“he is moveable,” she said—and how she and other radicals in the party intend to keep pushing him should he win the White House.
Harris as Biden’s VP pick does nothing to mitigate this dynamic. On almost every issue, she’s to the left of Biden and can be expected to do so much pushing in a Biden administration that in a very real sense the election is really between Trump and Harris.
The narrative that Biden and Harris are just milquetoast moderates serves therefore not just to set voters at ease, but to make it easier for them to govern as stealth authoritarians, selling every radical new policy as a common-sense step by a no-nonsense, pragmatic Biden administration. (If you recall, this is the same posture the Obama administration adopted, couching its radical agenda as ho-hum governance because, in Obama’s own words, all the major debates about what needs to be done are “over,” the only disagreement is about which policies will be most effective.)
So expect to hear more talk of Biden and Harris as “Rockefeller Republicans”—a term that in any other election cycle Democrats might lob as an insult, tarring the GOP as the party of Wall Street and the wealthy East-Coast elite. This time around they mean it as flattery, even if in the end it’s completely disingenuous.