Trump Is Trying to Pick His Opponent Just Like Nixon Did
Nixon’s ‘dirty tricks’ campaign on Ed Muskie got him a landslide victory in 1972. The president’s attack on Biden is eerily similar.
As the House begins to move its two articles of impeachment against President Trump, there’s been much chatter about how President Trump’s dire political situation parallels President Nixon’s Watergate scandal in 1974. There’s less mention, however, about how Trump’s political tactics mirror Nixon’s — and that’s a shame because deeper knowledge of the 37th president’s deceptions have a thing or two to teach us about our present political morass.
The House’s decision to act now — and not wait for lengthy court battles over documents, witnesses, and assertions of executive privilege — is largely a reflection of its acknowledgment that Trump will use the awesome powers of his office to cheat in the 2020 elections. It’s also an acknowledgment that such a scenario has happened before, although few seem to remember it. Like Trump, Nixon sought not only to turn the apparatus of the state to his advantage, but to tarnish his potential competitors and pick the person he would ultimately run against in his reelection campaign.
In 1972, Nixon sought reelection after a rocky first term. His administration was dogged by the Vietnam War and his inability to end it, as he had promised in 1968. Protests over his invasion of Cambodia in April 1970 had caused a meltdown on campuses across the country. In Ohio, four students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University. Within the week, virtually every college campus was shut down and student-protestors descended on Washington, D.C., by the tens of thousands, causing the administration to call out the Army to protect buildings and officials.
By 1971, Nixon was still making little progress in Vietnam and the economy was faltering. His bold moves in opening China and negotiating with the Soviets over nuclear weapons came in early 1972. So, from Nixon’s perspective there was a real reason to fear that he might not be reelected. His answer was to cheat.
It was not just the Watergate break-in that eventually brought down Nixon. Early in 1972, Nixon attacked his greatest threat — a moderate senator who was considered the front-runner.
It was not just the Watergate break-in that eventually brought down Nixon. Early in 1972, Nixon attacked his greatest threat — a moderate senator who was considered the front-runner: Maine Senator Edmund Muskie. Nixon knew that if he could, in effect, handpick his opponent he would have an eminently better chance facing a liberal like Sen. George McGovern. So, Nixon’s operatives in the White House got busy. In a “dirty tricks” campaign they created a counterfeit letter that made it appear that Muskie was disrespectful to Canadian Americans by laughing at a joke about “Canucks.” It was fake news. Muskie defended himself in front of the newspaper that published the falsehood and allegedly cried — although that is not entirely clear.
Nixon had what he wanted. Muskie was mortally wounded and later withdrew from the election, leaving the field to McGovern. Nixon’s people left nothing to chance. Even as it became clear from polling that Nixon would beat McGovern, his Committee to Re-elect the President fashioned plans to sabotage the election by breaking into the National Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate and planting listening devices. When the burglars went back in to fix faulty bugs on June 17, 1972, they were caught and arrested. Nixon made the situation worse by obstructing justice — paying the burglars not to talk and dangling pardons to ensure their silence.
But Nixon’s election interference worked. Sen. McGovern suffered one of the great defeats in presidential history. His platform to get out of Vietnam at any cost was simply not palatable to Americans who, as George Patton said in the popular movie from the time, had never lost a war. The 50,000 dead could not simply have died in vain. Nixon won every state except Massachusetts.
The point is that Trump seeks to do the same thing. He would like to choose his opponent, recognizing that it is far more probable that he can beat a liberal progressive like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren than the more moderate Joe Biden. Therefore, Trump targeted Biden in the Ukraine scandal. His plan may still work, but Democrats believe that they cannot wait to let Trump continue his election sabotaging spree. And they have the evidence that Democrats lacked in 1972.
Trump’s smoking gun is the July 25, 2019, partial transcript in which he pressures President Zelenskiy to announce investigations into Biden and the debunked (Russian-sponsored) theory that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 election. Nixon’s smoking gun did not emerge until July 1974, after he had been reelected, when the Supreme Court ordered him to turn over tape recordings, one of which showed Nixon abusing the power of his office to direct the CIA to tell the FBI to turn off the Watergate investigation.
There are marked differences, though. In 1974, the House voted to begin its impeachment proceedings against Nixon with a large degree of bipartisan support. On February 6, the House of Representatives voted 410 to 4 in support of a resolution to investigate whether the president had committed impeachable offenses. But, it must be remembered, this was after an entire year of investigations and disclosures. In the spring of 1973, Nixon’s White House Counsel, John Dean, broke with the president and began cooperating with prosecutors and Senate investigators. His testimony in June was electric; Dean testified that he warned the president that there was a “cancer growing on his presidency” due to the cover-up. Weeks later, the taping system was discovered. During the fight for the tapes, Nixon fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. His attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned. Then Nixon’s lawyers announced there was an 18 and a half minute gap on one of the critical tapes. The “drip, drip, drip” of these bombshells had already corroded Nixon’s credibility by the time the House voted to open impeachment proceedings in 1974.
In the present situation, the discovery of the Ukraine call in September 2019, because of the whistleblower complaint, has rocketed the impeachment inquiry to articles of impeachment in a matter of months. Unlike the more rambling article drawn up against Nixon, the Trump articles of impeachment will be focused on the Ukraine scandal and the obstruction of Congress. They will not refight the Mueller Report or the election of 2016.
There is little expectation that the Senate will convict after a trial, so there is no likelihood that Trump will consider resigning, as Nixon did in August 1974. But impeachment will set up the 2020 election where Senators and Representatives who have stood by Trump will have to explain to the electorate why they supported a president who clearly sought election interference from a foreign power and then stonewalled Congress in responding to lawful subpoenas.
If Biden is run out of the race, perhaps we will see a repeat of 1972 and a beatdown of a liberal progressive. But, if the stain of impeachment erodes support — with voters disliking what Trump did but not wanting the radical remedy of removal — then the Democratic move could pay off. Independent voters may very well be tired of a provocative, lawless president.