Mark Mellman: Watergate Republicans vs. Trump Republicans

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The Republicans of 1973/74 seem like a totally different breed than those we’re saddled with today.

We recall them as facing the tribulations of Watergate determined to uncover the truth, whatever the consequences, and relentlessly demanding to know what the president knew and when he knew it, in the famous words of Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.). 

{mosads}We remember Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) leading a solemn delegation of Republicans down Pennsylvania Avenue to tell President Nixon to resign or face impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate.

Perhaps they were just better people than the current lot: more patriotic, more honest, more averse to hypocrisy, more committed to our republic and its institutions, more willing to put country over party. 

It turns out that our memories (or at least mine) are a bit blurred, and as the Nixon experience demonstrated, there’s still time for the Republicans of ’19 to be judged more favorably by history. 

However superior in character, motivation, and patriotism, the Republicans of ’73/74 were also politicians, but fortunate enough to face a very different kind of electorate. 

Whatever their private misgivings, Nixon’s Republicans mostly stuck with him publicly through the Watergate hearings until the Saturday Night Massacre, when the president fired the special prosecutor investigating him and the attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned, rather than carry out the commander in chief’s order. 

Finally, five months after the public hearings began, and with the president’s approval rating 10-12 points lower than Trump’s is today, Republicans demanded “full and complete disclosure” of all Watergate material to investigators, as well as a new special prosecutor, with “safeguards” to prevent his removal.

But very few of Nixon’s Republicans actually broke with their president, even after the Saturday Night Massacre. While expressing misgivings about the president’s authority to fire the prosecutor, Goldwater charged the investigation had become “political” and maintained Nixon’s actions warranted neither impeachment nor conviction.

At that point, a single Republican senator, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, called for impeachment proceedings, though a few other Republicans joined a tiny chorus of criticism.

It wasn’t until just a couple of weeks before the impeachment vote and Nixon’s resignation that even a few Republicans actually called for his ouster. 

Goldwater, who privately urged Nixon to resign, denied at the time that such a discussion even took place and never publicly called for Nixon’s removal or announced how he might vote on impeachment.

Whether politicians were different then is debatable, but politics surely was.

In 1973, almost half of Republican senators represented states that also sent a Democrat to that body. Today only eight of 53 Republicans represent their states along with a Democrat.

According to American National Election Study data, twice as many Americans split their tickets in 1972 than in 2016.

Then, politicians worried about swing voters. Today, Republicans fixate instead on primaries from the right and from a party enthralled with Donald Trump.

Only 29 percent of the GOP strongly approved of Richard Nixon’s performance, yet elected  Republicans worried about losing their base by opposing Nixon.

Today, Trump’s strong approval among Republicans is about 66 percent — nearly 40 points higher than Nixon’s. If they worried then, the politics should have them cowering now — and it does.

As Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R-Pa.) noted in the midst of Watergate, “Every member of Congress is a walking Gallup Poll, and a better one than the poll taker . . . because he has more at stake.”

Inwardly disturbed by Watergate and its cover-up, the Republicans of ’73/’74 didn’t act until their polls, internal and external, told them it was safe.

Dumping Trump isn’t a safe position for a Republican today, and they won’t start taking him on until some poll, internal or external, tells them the potential costs are low.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.

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