Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Without precedent, beyond analogy

Sometimes, the best examples come after the post has run. Last month  we made the following point about attempts to draw analogies between Trump and a couple of 20th Century Republicans.
There's already been lots of discussion about the Trump/Goldwater analogy and a fair amount, more recently, about the Trump/Nixon analogy. Both of these provide some interesting points to explore, but what strikes me is most important here is where the analogies fail. At the risk of oversimplifying, the extremism of Barry Goldwater and the corruption and abuse of power of the Nixon administration both qualified as comparable threats to the Republican Party. The GOP was able to weather these threats with no lasting damage in large part because it successfully distanced itself from both men.

Along these lines, check out the following from Carl Bernstein of Woodward and Bernstein fame:
Bernstein called back to President Nixon's Watergate scandal, and said the "heroes" of the scandal were the Republicans in Congress. "The heroes of Watergate were really Republicans, they were Republicans in the House and the Senate who wanted this investigated to the bottom: What did the president know and when did he know it," he said. "That's what we're not seeing here. We're not seeing it from the Republicans on the Hill who are consumed by supposedly looking for leaks."

We can go back and forth as to whether or not Bernstein is overstating the heroism here, but what matters for this discussion is perception, and clearly the GOP was able to create a perceived distance between its legislators and the Nixon White House. If Russia does end up playing a significant role in the end of the Trump administration, it is fairly safe to assume that future Bernsteins will not describe Devin Nunes as a hero of the process.


  1. Mark:

    A couple things.

    1. Congress in the 1970s was run by Democrats, so the Watergate investigation was happening. The Republicans had no chance of stopping it. All they could do was vote not to impeach, but this would not stop all the revelations from coming out. 2017 is different because the Republicans have a chance of stopping the investigation before it happens.

    2. By the time the impeachment vote was happening, Nixon was super-unpopular, among Republicans as well as Democrats. So it was a savvy political move for Republicans to distance themselves from Nixon. Voting against a president who's unpopular even in your own party does not require heroics.

    1. Andrew,

      I tried to put a little distance between myself and the "heroes of Watergate" line, but I probably didn't put enough. That said, there are a couple of important points:

      1. While it is probable that the Congressional Republicans were simply facing the inevitable (as was Nixon himself when he resigned), they were able to create an impression of independence that most of the press bought to some degree. Even the worldly Charles Pierce gave them points for their handling of the affair (albeit highly qualified).

      I would suggest that this perception helped the GOP avoid lasting damage from Watergate. As long as someone like Devon Nunes is the face of the Republican response to Trump scandals, the public impression is likely to be one of complicity and I believe that greatly increases the risk of a sustained toll on the party.

      If the focus shifts to the Senate this could change and I might just have to scale back my claims. Senators have less to fear from Trump and Trump loyalists and arguably more to gain from a show of independence. Plus, the culture of the institution makes them more likely to push back;

      2. To the larger point, I think the points you brought up reinforce the case that the current situation, while having certain similarities to 64 and Watergate, is not analogous to anything we've seen in modern American history. I would argue, in cases like these, it makes sense to rely less on precedent and more on going back to first principles. In other words, these days, there is a great deal to be said for thinking things through logically, and very little value in assuming things will go the way they have in the past.