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It Took A Long Time For Republicans To Abandon Nixon

On July 23, 1974, Rep. Lawrence Hogan, Sr., a Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, bought airtime on TV networks across his home state of Maryland. He had a big announcement to share: Hogan was the first Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to publicly say he would vote to impeach Nixon. It was just over two weeks before Nixon would announce his resignation, and the Judiciary Committee was poised to approve three articles of impeachment against the president — except nobody knew that yet.

Today, as another impeachment drama unfolds, it’s easy to see Republicans like Hogan, who were willing to break ranks with their party, as a fundamental difference between Watergate and today. And it’s true that Republicans are currently staying in President Trump’s corner. But while we tend to focus on the bipartisan rebellion that led to Nixon’s resignation, it’s also worth understanding how public opinion and the party eventually turned against the president.

Support for impeachment had grown slowly over the course of 1974, but there still wasn’t an overwhelming public consensus behind it until right before Nixon left office in early August. And Republican support for Nixon had remained mostly strong, even in the face of a scandal that consumed his second term. As the truth about the scope of Nixon’s misconduct emerged, though, impeachment became increasingly popular and the president lost even his most fervent defenders in Congress. Of course, there are many differences between the Nixon impeachment and the Democrats’ current inquiry, which is still in its early stages, and each impeachment investigation will unfold differently. But as today’s Republicans are scrutinized for signs that they might turn on Trump, it’s important to remember that even in Watergate, it took more than a year of investigation — and a lot of evidence against Nixon — to reach the point where Republicans like Hogan were voting for impeachment.

Impeachment wasn’t popular until right before Nixon resigned

When the House of Representatives voted in February 1974 to give the House Judiciary Committee subpoena power to investigate Nixon, it did not have the weight of public opinion behind it. According to a poll conducted by Gallup just days before the vote, only 38 percent of Americans were in favor of impeachment. And although a solid majority of Americans did eventually come to support impeachment, that moment didn’t arrive until quite late in the game.

But this didn’t mean the public wasn’t souring on Nixon as the Watergate scandal unfolded. After winning a sweeping victory in the 1972 election, the president began his second term with an approval rating around 60 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s tracker of presidential approval. Then that spring saw a stunning 30-point drop in Nixon’s support starting around when one of the people charged with breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters confessed to a judge that he and the other conspirators had been pressured to stay silent.

Support for Nixon continued to plunge throughout the long summer of 1973, while former White House lawyer John Dean testified in Senate hearings that the president had been involved in a cover-up of the burglary and a White House aide confirmed in closed-door testimony that Nixon had set up a secret White House taping system. And by the time of October’s Saturday Night Massacre — where Nixon ordered the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who had been demanding those tapes, and the closing of the special prosecutor’s investigation — his approval rating had plunged to 27 percent, which is about where it stayed until Nixon resigned.

As Nixon’s approval ratings fell, support for impeachment was rising more gradually, reaching solid majority support by early August 1974. That was right in the midst of the crucial two-week period when the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over the White House tapes, the House Judiciary Committee voted to approve three articles of impeachment and Nixon released the transcript of what became known as the “smoking gun” tape, which showed that he had helped orchestrate the cover-up. His support among his allies (who had included some conservative southern Democrats as well as Republicans) had already started to erode significantly, but it was the “smoking gun” tape that finally forced his resignation on August 8, before the House could vote on impeachment. At that point, the public was clearly behind impeachment, although a significant minority of Americans — including most Republicans — still didn’t think Nixon should be removed from office.

Most Republicans in Congress took a long time to break with Nixon

So why did it take most Republicans so long to break with Nixon? There was a growing bipartisan sense of alarm about his actions, especially in the wake of the Saturday Night Massacre, as a handful of Republicans in Congress called for Nixon’s resignation. Even some party leaders and staunch Nixon defenders, like Sen. Barry Goldwater, criticized the president’s handling of the scandal, although their rebukes still fell short of calling for impeachment. The House’s vote to formally open an impeachment inquiry in February 1974 was almost unanimous.

Republicans generally saw the inquiry as legitimate, but that didn’t mean they had lost faith in Nixon. “Many remained vocal in support of the president, saying he was innocent,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University and the former director of the Nixon presidential library. “Others were more judicious, waiting for the evidence to come out.”

Eventually, several of the more moderate Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, including Hogan, were convinced by the evidence against Nixon and voted for at least one of the articles of impeachment in July 1974. As the chart below shows, three of the articles of impeachment passed with varying levels of support from Republicans and conservative Democrats, although a significant number of conservative Republicans remained in Nixon’s camp. The final two articles of impeachment, which centered on the secret bombing of Cambodia that began in 1969 and charges of tax fraud against Nixon, were not approved.

Some of the Republican defense of Nixon probably boiled down to party loyalty, according to Jeffrey Engel, a presidential historian at Southern Methodist University. “For a long time, they just weren’t going to pull the trigger on a duly elected president from their own party,” he said. Republicans also faced pressure from a small but powerful group of activists who were vehemently opposed to Nixon’s impeachment and were aggressively lobbying their representatives not to abandon him. “Increasingly, [Republican leadership] thought it would be better for the party if Nixon could be persuaded to go,” said Mark Nevin, a history professor at Ohio University Lancaster who has studied Republican support for Nixon at the end of his presidency. “But nobody wanted to be the one who pushed him out.”

It also took a while for all of the evidence to emerge, and ultimately, the scope of Nixon’s wrongdoing helped convince some of the Judiciary Committee Republicans to break ranks, in spite of pressure from leadership to maintain a united front in support of Nixon. “It wasn’t a single act that moved them — it was the pattern of corruption by the president,” Naftali said. Nixon’s support was crumbling by the time the Judiciary Committee voted on impeachment, but he didn’t lose the full support of his party until the “smoking gun” tape clearly implicated him in the Watergate cover-up, at which point he lost even the Republicans on the committee who had voted against impeachment. Two days after the transcript of the tape became public, Goldwater led a delegation to the White House to tell Nixon it was over.

It’s hard to imagine what such a “smoking gun” would look like today, in part because the Democrats’ investigations are still in the information-gathering stage, but it does seem that we haven’t arrived there yet. One important difference between the Nixon era and today: Trump hasn’t really denied the allegations against him, while several historians told me that many Republicans probably believed Nixon was telling the truth about his lack of involvement in the cover-up. The shock of discovering just how much Nixon had misled them was also an important factor.

“It was an enormous betrayal for some of Nixon’s allies when they realized that he had been lying the whole time,” Engel said. “Because it meant they had been lying too.”

Partisanship can be a powerful barrier to impeachment

One of the oft-cited lessons of Watergate is that impeaching a president requires a bipartisan effort. And in the end, it did. Republicans voted with Democrats to subpoena Nixon and to approve the articles of impeachment, which was a significant political risk. But focusing only on that part of the saga doesn’t account for how strongly many Republicans defended their president throughout most of the investigation. “The Nixon case shows that seemingly intractable partisan disagreement over impeachment can give way if the president’s conduct is bad enough and the proof of it is clear enough,” said Joshua Matz, a constitutional lawyer and the co-author of “To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment.” “But it also shows that this is a high barrier, and it didn’t happen until awfully late in the process.”

At several points, according to Nevin’s research, Goldwater and other prominent Republicans considered pushing Nixon to resign, but instead continued to defend him because they were afraid of a backlash from his supporters. “Some Republicans were actually relieved when the tape came out because it was so obviously obstruction that you couldn’t come to any other conclusion,” Nevin said. “It freed them from having to make what would have been a very difficult decision.”

Today some Republicans may be facing a similar dilemma: Do they ignore party allegiance and turn on the president, or double down on party loyalty?

One complicating factor here is that if Republicans were to abandon Trump, history does not suggest that Trump loyalists would easily forgive them for joining the Democrats’ impeachment effort. Even though most Americans did eventually support removing Nixon from office, Republican voters were mostly not part of that consensus. Days before he resigned, a Gallup poll found that only 31 percent of Republicans thought Nixon should no longer be president. And some of those supporters deeply resented their representatives for their role in ousting Nixon, which may even have contributed to the Democratic landslide in the 1974 midterm elections.

Of course, looking back on what happened in Watergate can’t tell us whether Trump will survive this particular scandal. Some Republicans have started to criticize Trump’s behavior, but none have taken the momentous step of supporting an impeachment inquiry. So Trump’s removal certainly doesn’t seem likely now. But if nothing else, history offers a good reminder about how challenging it is to predict the future. After all, until a few weeks before his resignation, Nixon’s fate wasn’t a foregone conclusion either.

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Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.