Should we try to settle the question “What would Winthrop Rockefeller do?”
Would the liberal Republican have mutated into a tea-party Republican if he had lived another 40 years to see the revolution in the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Javits and Rockefellers?
The celebrations of the centennial of Winthrop Rockefeller’s birth raise those questions as Republicans embrace the former governor, whose four races and two elections transformed Arkansas politics, almost as if he were the father of contemporary Republicanism.
Former U.S. Rep. Ed Bethune wrote an op-ed Saturday for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette in which he rebuked Democrats — by name former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, state party chairman Will Bond and Hendrix College political science professor and Arkansas Times columnist Jay Barth — for implying that Rockefeller would not be a tea-party Republican today. He called it a dirty trick, “a ghoulish attempt to rewrite history for political purposes.”
Who can say? Make your own educated guess.
In 1969, Rockefeller laid out the most ambitious program in Arkansas history. It was, he said, what he entered politics to do.
Arkansas had the lowest level of state and local taxes in the country, the toughest anti-union laws and one of the lowest degrees of unionization in the country — a model business climate, in other words. By current Republican theology, Arkansas should have been a paradise of prosperity.
Instead, Arkansas and Mississippi were dead last in per-capita income, average wages and (with West Virginia) the level of poverty; in education spending, teacher pay and the percentage of adults with college educations (we’re still last there); in infant deaths, low-birthweight babies and the general index of child and maternal health, and in so many other measures of well being. Rockefeller said he intended to change that with a massive investment in education and public health, the latter by starting to match the available Medicaid money for health and social services bequeathed by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. So Rockefeller proposed a package of tax increases, easily the largest ever in Arkansas — bigger even than the cumulative tax increases of Mike Huckabee. It would have boosted revenues by 50 percent, equivalent to a tax increase of nearly $3 billion today.
The key was an overhaul of personal income tax rates, raising the top marginal rate from 5 to 12 percent, on incomes above $100,000, and eliminating taxes on the very poorest taxpayers. Is there a Republican lawmaker anywhere in the land who would support that today? In the Arkansas Senate, his bill went down 3 to 31. The sponsor, Jim Caldwell, the only Republican in the Senate, voted for it, along with two Democrats. The only four Republicans in the House and seven Democrats voted for the bill. It failed there 11 to 73.
The same or worse fate awaited the rest of his program: an increase in the corporate income tax from a graduated rate of 5 percent to a flat rate of 7 percent; an increase in the sales tax from 3 to 4 percent; expansion of the sales tax to cover services like accountants, lawyers, doctors, dentists and architects and to cover purchases by utilities, transportation companies and communications companies; a 5-cents-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax; a new tax on cigars and tobacco; an increase in beer and liquor taxes and on mixed drinks; and an increase in the tax on real-estate transfers.
What about unions and teacher organizations, the bane of the current GOP? He called the legislature into special session in 1968 to enact the first minimum-wage law. The next year, he demanded that the legislature enact a law giving public school teachers tenure, protection from casual dismissal. It refused.
One of his last acts was to commute the death sentences of all 15 men on death row to life. The harshest attack on him came from Ed Bethune, whom Rockefeller had appointed as a prosecuting attorney. Bethune asked the attorney general, Democrat Joe Purcell, to declare Rockefeller’s commutations illegal, but Purcell said the governor had that constitutional power.
If a Republican officeholder in Arkansas, or anywhere, supports even one of all those initiatives, let him or her speak up.
Linwood Holton of Virginia, who like his friend Rockefeller in the late 1960s stood against the rising GOP tide in the South represented by Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms and Claude Roy Kirk, and who was elected governor anyway, surprised his old party in 2008 by supporting Barack Obama.
Would Winthrop Rockefeller do likewise? It’s anybody’s guess, but I think so.