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Beyond Pope Francis: 10 More Conservatives Who Have Gone Liberal

The new pope isn’t the only right-of-center figure to take a walk on the left side

Pope Francis has shocked the world and delighted all Catholics to the left of Antonin Scalia with his surprise shift from doctrinal conservative to social and economic progressive. But Rolling Stone's new cover star is far from the first right-of-center figure to push the limits of institutional orthodoxy and take a walk on the liberal side. A few stopped at showing brief flashes of humanity; some went all the way and pulled a Full Francis. By Jon Dolan

Pope Francis: The Times They Are A-Changin' (Full cover story)

Pope Francis' Gentle Revolution: Inside Rolling Stone's New Issue

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Otto Von Bismarck

One of the most powerful authoritarian leaders in European history, Bismarck served as Minister President of Prussia from 1862 to 1890, during which time he kicked France's ass in the Franco-Prussian War and unified Germany. The Biz was quite the old-school charmer: "The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions," he famously wrote, "but by iron and blood." Yet, in forging a new national identity, Bismarck also enacted universal male suffrage and instituted the world's first universal health care system – a real Velvet Underground moment in the development of the modern welfare state.

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Benjamin Disraeli

Being the only Jewish Prime Minister in the history of Great Britain is in itself a pretty liberating accomplishment. As leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister (briefly in 1868, and then from 1874 to 1880), he tried to ameliorate the devastating class divisions in Victorian society through a paternalist policy of "One Nation" conservatism, also known as Tory democracy. Though vaguely defined, the program included innovative legislation like the Conspiracy And Protection of Property Act, which made it legal for workers to strike.

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Pope John XXIII

This Sixties Pope is pretty much Chuck Berry to Pope Francis' Keith Richards. Like Francis, John XXIII was expected to be little more than a "caretaker" Pope. But in 1962, he convened the Second Vatican Council, an ecumenical throwdown that ended up dropkicking the Catholic Church out of the Dark Ages and into the modernity – it's the "Roll Over Beethoven" of Papal conclaves. Vatican II got rid of the super-boring Latin Mass, relaxed longstanding dogma and generally opened the door to a new kind of socially and politically liberal Catholicism.

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Teddy Roosevelt

From corpo-Republican William McKinley's loyal veep to the fighting leader of the Progressive Party in the election of 1912, T.R. pulled what might be the most Francis-like transformation of any political figure in U.S. history. During his presidency he regulated business, busted trusts and fought for the successful passage of public safety and conservation laws. When his successor in the White House, William Howard Taft, didn't follow through on his agenda, Roosevelt completed what historian Richard Hofstadter called a "tardy but opportune conversion to radicalism" and ran for another term as president on a platform that included old-age insurance, a national health service, relief to farmers, an eight-hour workday and other initiatives that'd show up two decades later in his cousin Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower

In 1952, after 20 years out of the office, conservative Republicans were licking their chops at the chance to get back in power and start hacking away at the New Deal. Instead they got Ike, a rigorously opaque politician who tended towards a moderation that infuriated the party's right wing (Barry Goldwater called his administration "a dime store New Deal"). He sent federal troops to integrate Little Rock Central High School, warned against the evils of the military-industrial complex and expanded Social Security. After the head of the John Birch Society claimed that Ike was a secret communist agent, writer Russell Kirk responded, "He's no communist. He's a golfer."

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Richard Nixon

Nixon excelled at finding ways of co-opting liberal ideas to his own ends. He lowered the voting age to 18, broke with Cold War orthodoxy by going to China and established the Environmental Protection Agency. Declaring himself a Keynesian, he even proposed the Family Assistance Program, which would've guaranteed every American an annual minimum income of $1600. Today that simple idea is radical enough to get you branded – you guessed it – a communist.

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David Souter

President George H.W. Bush hoped to mollify a disappointed Republican base by nominating David Souter to the Supreme Court in 1990; GOP Senator John Sununu sold Bush on Souter by saying he'd be a "slam dunk for conservatives." Oops. Souter's name became a swear word on the right as he took moderate-to-liberal stands on issues from abortion to school prayer. Souter voted with the minority in 2000's Bush v. Gore, a ruling he reportedly wept over. How the right didn’t see this coming is kind of mystifying. As of his retirement in 2009, Souter didn't own a computer and he famously never plugged in a TV he was given as a gift early in his tenure. What a a hippie!

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Charlie Crist

A one-term GOP Governor of Florida, Crist responded to the Tea Party takeover of his state by flipping parties and supporting President Obama in 2012. He's been especially contrite regarding gay rights. In 2008, while governor, Crist endorsed a statewide constitutional ban on gay marriage. He's since recanted that position, telling the LGBT publication Watermark, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I did that. It was a mistake. I was wrong. Please forgive me." 

Andrew Harrer

Colin Powell

"To sum up my political philosophy, I am a fiscal conservative with a social conscience," George H.W. Bush administration alum Colin Powell wrote in 1995. Powell has been giving right-wingers fits for years as a moderate voice on everything from affirmative action to abortion to gun control to foreign policy. Even being George W. Bush's first Secretary of State in the 2000s couldn't save his reputation on the right, and his 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama was tantamount to a final divorce. "Can we continue to listen to Rush Limbaugh?" Powell told CNN at the time. "Is this really the kind of party that we want to be when these kinds of spokespersons seem to appeal to our lesser instincts rather than our better instincts?"

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George W. Bush

Surprised to see Dubya on this list? The scary truth is, as today's extremist GOP gets screwier and screwier, Bush keeps looking less and less horrific by the minute – proof that, as the Good Lord teaches, even the lowest among us can find redemption. He bucked the most racist elements of his party to pursue a moderate path towards immigration reform, and his record on fighting AIDS in the Third World won him a shout-out in Bill Clinton's 2012 Democratic National Convention speech. Even deeply flawed legislation like No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D at least reflected a basic belief that government can and should play an active role in society, which is more than you can say for a lot of congressional Republicans in 2014. Look, there's no question he still sucks compared to Al Gore. But compared to Ted Cruz, Bush II might as well be LBJ.  

 

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