The Loss of Republican Principle

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tags: Republican Party, Watergate, Nixon, Trump

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of “Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama” (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.


In the mid 1970s, America faced an impeachment crisis under President Richard Nixon. A lawless President who had abused power and obstructed justice was creating a constitutional crisis that presented his party, the Republican Party, with a dilemma: how should they react?


In 1974, the Republican Party was led by three men: Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the 1964 GOP Presidential nominee; Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania; and House Minority Leader John Rhodes of Arizona. All three had been supportive of much of Richard Nixon’s domestic and international agenda and all three wanted to support their party and its principles. 


But when it became clear that Richard Nixon had abused power and obstructed justice, the three men consulted with their fellow Republicans in both houses of Congress and decided  Nixon had gone too far and was a threat to constitutional order and the rule of law. The tipping point for these three leaders was the move by the House Judiciary Committee on July 27, 1974 to adopt three articles of impeachment. Seven House Republicans joined the majority Democrats in charging Nixon with obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. This was three days after the Supreme Court, unanimously demanded that the President hand over the Watergate tapes demanded by Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski. The 8-0 vote included three Justices appointed by Nixon. In response, Nixon released the so-called “smoking gun” tapes days later on August 5.


At noon on August 7, Goldwater, Scott, and Rhodes went to the White House and informed the President that he had lost support among his own Republican colleagues. He would be unlikely to gain more than 15 Republican votes against conviction in an impeachment trial. It was time for him to resign and allow Vice President Gerald Ford to assume the Presidency. With the loss of the support of these leaders, especially Goldwater who Nixon always highly regarded for his strong principles and ethics, Nixon saw no way out other than to resign.


No one in their right mind would have thought that Nixon, with his combative personality, would ever think of resigning. Nonetheless, Nixon fully understood he had to do what was proper to do for the nation and for the institution of the Presidency. Nixon resigned and delivered his farewell speech on August 9, 1974. 


Now, 45 years later, some believe history is repeating itself. After nearly two years of investigation and the release of Robert Mueller’s redacted report, many believe Donald Trump has besmirched the office of the Presidency. Many worry Trump threatens the dignity, prestige, and respect that the American Presidency has commanded for over 230 years. Yet, unlike 45 years ago, Republicans as a party seem unwilling to abandon the President. 


Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the 2012 GOP Presidential nominee, made a strong public statement condemning the behavior and actions of Donald Trump, but he did not indicate any willingness to go beyond the statement.  He issued a sharp rebuke of Trump after the release of the Mueller Report, saying he was appalled by the “extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection” of people around the President and Trump himself. Romney was also alarmed by the extent of the Trump campaign’s willingness to accept help from Russia and called the scandal an abandonment of the goals of the Founding Fathers. However, he expressed relief that the evidence against Trump was not substantive enough to justify charges of obstruction of justice or any other crimes.


For his statement, he has been bitterly attacked by Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas Governor, 2012 Presidential candidate, and father of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Huckabee said he was sickened that Romney might have been President and reminded the public that Romney had once sought a cabinet appointment from Trump. 


Few others have reacted to Romney’s criticism of Trump or to the allegations of the Mueller Report. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky continues to support Trump and his agenda. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California is also unwilling to hold Trump accountable in any fashion. If anything, he is more subservient to Trump than former Republican leader and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in the first two years of the Trump Presidency. Sadly, Romney, McConnell, and McCarthy, in similar positions to Goldwater, Scott, and Rhodes in 1974, have prioritized their party over the public’s interest. 


In so doing, they are destroying the Republican Party’s historical tradition of great Congressional leadership in favor of their conservative agenda. Just as the earlier generation of Goldwater, Scott, and Rhodes are given tribute in American history, the new generation of Romney, McConnell, and McCarthy will be condemned in the long run of history.

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