The 1970s were not good for the Republican Party.
The Watergate break-in of 1972 and the ensuing scandal that engulfed the Nixon administration did not end when the president was forced from office two years later. Instead, the midterms of that year saw the fallout cost Republicans four Senate seats and 49 House seats. The GOP wouldn’t see losses in the House on that scale again until 2018.
Because the Republican Party had separated itself from Nixon, it could spend its wilderness years forming a new identity.
And after Nixon resigned in 1974, the not-very-charismatic Gerald Ford filled in through the end of his term. Ford then lost to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election, giving rise to an administration that conservatives still remember as something akin to the Dark Ages (and not without reason).
But because the Republican Party had separated itself from Nixon, it could spend its wilderness years forming a new identity. In 1980, infused with fresh energy and led by Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party returned to power, and conservatism became the dominant force in American politics until the financial crisis of 2008.
Ditching Nixon proved to be in the best long-term interests of the party. Abandoning Donald Trump will, as well. The country once again needs a revitalized GOP. Trumpism needs to be exorcized from the party of Lincoln and Reagan.
With the Democrats pursuing an impeachment inquiry against Trump — who allegedly leaned on the president of Ukraine to provide dirt on the son of Democratic front-runner Joe Biden and then covered it up — the most consequential political differential in determining whether Trump survives this perilous moment will be whether or not Republicans hold the line for the president or finally say enough is enough.
As the Nixon presidency imploded, even staunch defenders like Rep. Charles Wiggins eventually found it too difficult to defend Tricky Dick, a key factor in the premature end of Nixon’s presidency. And stalwarts like Wiggins changed their allegiances largely because of their indignation with Nixon’s own behavior.
White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig had invited Wiggins to view the transcript of the infamous “smoking gun” tape, which the Supreme Court ordered be turned over to Congress, before it was released to the public in order to let him shape the public reaction.
Instead, astonished by the damning information proving Nixon’s complicity that the transcripts contained, Wiggins turned on him. Within just a few days of the congressman’s switch to impeachment champion, Republican support for the president in the House and Senate had collapsed. Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, the elder statesman of the party, took the House and Senate minority leaders to the White House to tell Nixon it was all over. Nixon resigned.
The Trump White House also allowed key allies to view the memo of the president’s phone call with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in advance of publication in order to keep them in lock step. But while many of Trump’s allies in Congress are circling the wagons, there are many Republicans privately trying to figure out how to best navigate the moment. If only there was an elder statesman who could rally the remaining adults in the Senate to do what’s right.
Hello, Mitt Romney.
If Republicans do decide that backing Trump is more trouble than it’s worth, Sen. Romney has the opportunity to become the moral voice and leading force in a post-Trump Republican Party, not to mention to justify his somewhat bewildering decision to become a Utah senator.
Romney is Goldwater 50 years later. Both men were Republican Party nominees for president, lost to an incumbent Democrat because they allowed their opponents to define them as extreme and unrelatable, and both men won Senate elections after losing their White House races.
Early signs indicate that some congressional Republicans think this scandal might be different, chief among them the gentleman from Utah. Romney was quick to criticize the president’s actions after reports of a whistleblower complaint emerged, and after reading the partial transcript of the call released by the White House, said, "I did read the transcript. It remains troubling in the extreme. It's deeply troubling. Clearly what we've seen from the transcript itself is deeply troubling."
But he saved his harshest criticism (at least by Romney standards) for his more administration-friendly colleagues on Capitol Hill: “I think it’s very natural for people to look at circumstances and see them in the light that’s most amenable to their maintaining power, and doing things to preserve that power.”
A few other colleagues have followed suit. Sen. Ben Sasse, breaking his recent vow of silence, said, “American elections should be for Americans. And the idea that we would have foreign nation-states coming into the American electoral process, or the information surrounding an election, is really, really bad.”
He later added: “Republicans ought not just circle the wagons, ... and Democrats ought not have been using words like impeachment before they knew anything about the actual substance.”
Rep. Mike Turner, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, was even more forceful in his reaction to the conversation between Trump and Zelenskiy: “I want to say to the president, this is not OK. That conversation is not OK. And I think it's disappointing to the American public when they read the transcript."
This newfound willingness to break party orthodoxy might be more out of shrewd calculation than courage.
This newfound willingness to break party orthodoxy might be more out of shrewd calculation than courage. A YouGov poll found that only 49 percent of Republicans opposed impeachment when confronted with the facts of the Ukraine scandal. A poll two weeks earlier found that 79 percent of Republicans believed Trump should not be impeached. One poll won’t torpedo a presidency, but if future polls find similar results, down-ballot Republicans might start to jump ship.
Shrewd calculation may be exactly what the party needs. If 2019 is like 1972, Republicans are smart to be putting space between themselves and Trump. If Romney’s place in the Senate is to be the elder statesman who can help that process along, the party — and the country — will thank him for it. Eventually.