Calmes: During Watergate, Republicans made ‘the system’ work. Today’s GOP is failing the nation

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in that would end Richard M. Nixon’s presidency two years later. By then, his vice president and successor, Gerald R. Ford Jr., would tell Americans, “Our long national nightmare is over.”

Little could Ford or his audience imagine the nation’s current nightmare, which is far from over. We are witnessing the biggest presidential scandal since Watergate, or ever: Donald Trump’s ongoing assault on democracy after his unprecedented refusal to accept the 2020 election result and allow power to pass peacefully to the winner.

When it comes to disgracing the President, Don the Con tops even Tricky Dick. However, Trump had much more help to achieve his ignominy.

Spotted portrait illustration of Jackie Calmes

opinion columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes takes a critical look at the national political scene. She has decades of experience reporting on the White House and Congress.

When Nixon resigned and flew away from the White House in a helicopter, the consensus often expressed was that “the system worked.” All three branches of government had played their part: Congress, the courts, and even the executive branch after Nixon’s henchmen were eliminated and jailed. Eventually, Nixon himself—a supporter of constitutional governance and a patriot compared to the treacherous Trump, despite his many flaws—accepted that the game was up.

In Trump’s case, the system didn’t work. Until now. He’s walking loose while the Justice Department dawdles, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from his Marks, er, supporters (“The ‘big lie’ was also a big ripoff,” as San Jose Rep Zoe Lofgren said) and says he plans to run for president again. It’s far from clear whether the system will – or can – take him to court before that happens.

Still, we have gained some hard-won lessons: It is not “the system” that must work to preserve our 246-year-old nation. It is the people to whom we entrust the government apparatus that must act.

And these people, mostly Republicans, continue to let us down. Led in Congress by Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, they have enabled Trump’s worst abuses in years by condoning and opposing his impeachment, first for extortion from a foreign country for political filth and then for inciting a riot to stay in power.

In February 2021, the Senate voted 57-43 to convict Trump of sedition, but the majority — all 50 Democrats and seven principled Republicans — fell 10 votes short of the two-thirds margin required by the Constitution. Had McConnell and just nine other Republicans voted to convict, they wouldn’t have to worry about Trump being their party’s 2024 nominee. They could have prevented him from running for federal office after the conviction.

Nixon, too, initially had his Republican trailblazers, including Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee. This helps explain why more than two years elapsed from the break-in of the Democratic Party’s Watergate headquarters in election year to Nixon’s resignation under threat of impeachment and conviction by the Senate.

But back then, the truth had a common meaning for both sides. Baker and many other Republicans in Congress were not only swayed by the evidence accumulating against Nixon, they also helped unearth that evidence during the House impeachment hearing, and particularly during the special hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee bring to.

“What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Baker, the vice chairman of the Senate committee, famously asked.

Other Republican leaders, including Arizona conservative icon Senator Barry Goldwater, went to the White House and persuaded Nixon to resign rather than be ousted from office by Congress.

This reflects another difference between then and now: Most Republicans of the time put the country above the party and rewarded politicians who acted accordingly.

After Baker’s starring role against Nixon, he became Senate Majority Leader and then White House Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan. Contrast his fate to the party’s treatment of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who is also vice chair of a committee investigating a Republican presidential scandal.

Merely for condemning the reprehensible Trump, Cheney has been ousted from the Republican leadership team in the House (with McCarthy’s backing), excommunicated from the Wyoming Republican Party (its leader is owned by the militia group Oath Keepers), censored by the Republican National Committee and likely facing defeat re-election to a Trump-backed rival.

Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, the only other Republican to have similarly opposed Trump and served on the House committee investigating the attempted coup, received the same treatment. He waived re-election.

The Republican Party is Trump’s party: radicalized, tribal, sectarian. Most Republicans in Congress would not even vote to create a committee to investigate the executive branch’s assault on the legislature, an attack that threatened their lives. Those who have done so will be punished by Trumpian voters in party primaries.

Yes, Republican voters are just as to blame as party politicians for the failure of “the system.” In recent primaries, including Tuesday’s in four states, voters have handpicked numerous federal, state and federal candidates who have credited Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

Driving after visiting family in rural Ohio on Sunday, I passed a sign on a farm fence that read: “Biden did not defeat Trump. Voter fraud did it.”

That sums up the Republican litmus test these days, and it’s a lie. State and federal politicians fuel the lie or at least condone it. Until they stop, “the system” cannot function as it once so proudly did. And our national nightmare not only persists, it threatens to get worse.

@jackiekcalmes Calmes: During Watergate, Republicans made ‘the system’ work. Today’s GOP is failing the nation

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