Democrats and liberals have become intoxicated by the idea of impeaching President Donald Trump in the two weeks since he fired the FBI Director James Comey. “The House must begin the impeachment process before Donald Trump puts us at risk again,” prominent Democratic donor J.B. Pritzker told the New York Times last week. “The case for impeaching Trump—and fast,” read a Vox headline on Monday. These optimists probably aren’t just excited to get Trump out of office; they are also undoubtedly excited about what such a scandal would mean for the long-term prospects of the Republican Party, already torn apart by internal squabbles, an unruly base and constant games of legislative chicken. Once the relatively straightforward matter of impeachment is disposed of, they imagine, a new progressive age will dawn and the Democrats will lead a grateful populace into the broad, sunlit uplands of enlightenment.
Flashbacks to November 7, 2016, anyone?
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Leave aside, for the moment, inconvenient considerations such as the fact that the special counsel’s investigation may take years, that it may not come up with any unambiguously impeachable offense committed by Trump, and that a Republican-controlled Congress is highly unlikely to oust the leader of their party. Assume instead that through some improbable concatenation of circumstances, Trump actually could be impeached. Would the results be to the Democrats’ liking?
We have only two real examples of this last resort of last resorts in American politics. One was Bill Clinton, whose impeachment became such a transparently partisan charade that when he was acquitted of those charges by the Senate in February 1999, he saw his popularity soar. The other example is Richard Nixon, which is undoubtedly what some Democrats are hoping to recreate as they plan “Impeachment Marches” in early July. And they might be remembering how poorly the GOP fared after Watergate as the national scandal pushed Republicans out of office, boosted a new crop of liberal Democrats and resulted in a raft of reform legislation. Here’s what they’re forgetting, though: Ultimately, the aftereffects of the biggest scandal in American politics ended up helping the Republican Party—giving us unprecedented levels of polarization, distrust in government institutions and, leading, ultimately, to a President Donald Trump.
In the short term, of course, Republicans took a beating. After Nixon resigned in August 1974, the stench of Watergate continued to hang over the Republican Party, which dropped 49 seats in the House and five in the Senate during the 1974 midterm elections. The biggest losers in 1974 were conservative Republicans, whom the public identified with Nixon and his crimes.
All of this was good news for Democrats. Many of the 71 new House Democrats, known collectively as the “Watergate babies,” were strongly liberal and iconoclastic, and they brought a new reform spirit to Congress. They overturned the seniority system in Congress and overthrew several of the long-serving Southern Democratic committee chairmen who had acted as a brake on liberal legislation. Nixon’s successor as president, Gerald Ford, lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter. More broadly, Watergate energized the forces of dissent and contributed to the breakdown of the Cold War consensus that had made muscular anti-Communism the unquestioned foreign policy of both parties. The post-Watergate period, from 1975 to 1980, was the last in which the left had a determinative impact on American politics.
But in the long view of hindsight, the principal beneficiary of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation was the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Nixon was, despite the popular conception of him today, a centrist Republican—and because of Watergate, he may have been the last one. Nixon’s sensibilities were populist-conservative, but operationally he acted as a moderate and even occasionally as a progressive, as for example when he created the Environmental Protection Agency and proposed national health insurance that would have covered more people than Obamacare. In 1997, I interviewed Elliot Richardson, who as attorney general played a key role in bringing down Nixon but felt history had wrongly remembered the 37th president. “Most people don’t really get the fact that the Nixon administration was to the left of the Clinton administration,” Richardson told me. “Even the Eisenhower administration was to the left of the Clinton administration.”
From the time he entered the executive branch as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, Nixon aimed to modernize the Republican Party and make it representative of the broad middle swathe of American political opinion. In doing so, though, he sided with Republican moderates far too often for conservatives. Prominent leaders of the conservative movement publicly suspended their support of Nixon in 1971, angered by his welfare reform proposals, his advocacy of Keynesian economic policies, his opening to Communist China and his pursuit of détente with the Soviet Union. Conservatives even backed Ohio Rep. John Ashbrook’s quixotic campaign against Nixon in the 1972 Republican presidential primary. Right-wing journalist M. Stanton Evans judged that “Nixon has made impressive strides toward the political liquidation of American conservatism. … Nixon has taken the country further left than [1968 Democratic presidential nominee Hubert] Humphrey, given the realities of American party politics, could ever have managed to do.”
And ironically, it was Watergate that redeemed Nixon in the eyes of these disapproving hardline conservatives. Here’s the recollection of a participant in the 1973 annual convention of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), the leading right-wing organization on college campuses in the 1960s and ‘70s:
No matter how much movement conservatives disapproved of Nixon on other grounds… Watergate was one thing they liked. M. Stanton Evans, a long-time advisor to YAF and a mainstay at their conventions, put it this way: “If I’d known he’d been up to all that stuff, I’d have been for Nixon all along.”
The more liberals demonized Nixon and called for his ouster as the Watergate evidence piled up, especially after the October 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre,” the more conservatives belatedly came to his defense. This last-second shift allowed conservatives to pose as Nixon loyalists just as the president was on his way out, and to condemn the Republican moderates who contributed to the impeachment effort as traitors.
Rep. Thomas Railsback, who in 1974 was a Republican moderate from Illinois and is now one of the last surviving members of the House Judiciary Committee who voted to impeach Nixon, recently recalled, “I personally liked Richard Nixon. He campaigned for me.” However, faced with the evidence of Nixon’s crimes, “I reached a point—a number of us did—where we all felt that [voting to impeach] was the most important decision of our lives.” But after Nixon had resigned, he told me, “Some people left the room or turned their backs on me when I went back to Illinois. I got picketed by a Republican precinct committeeman. There were some Nixon people who didn’t like what I had done, voting to impeach a Republican president.”
Railsback’s willingness to follow his conscience in the Watergate crisis was a critical factor in the right-wing primary challenge that ended his political career in 1982. Conservatives charged that moderates’ independent judgment made them “Republicans in Name Only” and launched a wave of primaries against them in the post-Watergate years. That period marked what the New York Times’ Thomas Edsall recently termed “the onset of a purge of moderate Republicans from Congress.” Nixon had thrown the organizational weight of the Republican Party against primary challenges, knowing that the conservative who could topple a moderate was usually too far to the right to win a general election. With Nixon gone, the conservative id was no longer checked by the GOP super-ego.
But it wasn’t just a surge of conservatives in the immediate wake of the scandal: Watergate and Nixon’s resignation advantaged conservatives and disadvantaged Republican moderates in broader, more structural ways that bent the arc of political history for decades to come. Disgusted moderate Republicans withdrew from political activity after Watergate while conservatives built up their infrastructure of think tanks, pressure groups, and fundraising organizations. The liberal-driven 1974 Campaign Reform Act allowed conservatives, with the extensive lists of contacts they had developed since Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run, to make extensive use of direct mail solicitations and create the first political action committees, or PACs. Conservatives’ resources soon dwarfed moderates’. Not long after Watergate, Oregon’s moderate Senator Robert Packwood was lamenting the rise of “narrowly targeted massive spending organizations dedicated to the defeat of a candidate whose sole sin was to vote his conscience.”
The move toward binding state presidential primaries also disadvantaged moderates, since the right wing was able to dominate those elections (which historically have been low-turnout contests) through superior organizational muscle and the ideological zeal of its followers. Wonder why an oddball extremist like Christine O’Donnell was able to win the 2010 GOP senatorial primary in Delaware? Because less than a third of the state’s registered Republicans bothered to vote in the primary and O’Donnell won by just over 3,000 votes—before going down to dismal defeat in the fall, protesting “I’m not a witch” in response to ads that revealed her earlier dabbling in sorcery. If electoral participation rates were still at pre-Watergate levels, extreme candidates rarely would prevail in primaries outside of the most partisan states.
Ford made a dramatic comeback in the two months before the 1976 election and only lost narrowly to Carter. In all likelihood he would have won reelection if he had not sparked public outrage by pardoning Nixon—an action that historians have defended but which at the time looked like collusion or corruption. With the defeat of Ford, a moderate Republican, the way was clear for these newly empowered conservative Republicans to have their own man in the White House and consolidate control over the party. That man, of course, was Ronald Reagan, whose candidacy and election reinforced the conservative argument that, as he put it in his first inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
It was fashionable to say, after Nixon was forced from office, that the system had worked. But the impeachment crisis and its aftermath produced a corrosive public cynicism about politics and government, reflected in sinking voter turnout rates and a decline of citizen confidence in American institutions that still has not recovered.
Donald Trump is the ultimate product of our enduring post-Watergate cynicism. Throughout his campaign, he painted a picture of a country suffering disaster at home and humiliation abroad, in which nothing worked and no one could be trusted aside from Trump himself. Would this dark view of America have had any real traction prior to the national collapse in confidence that followed Watergate?
Reactionary politics flourish in times when Americans believe their institutions are broken. And is there any reason to doubt that an even deeper wave of cynicism would follow from a Trump impeachment?