Jonathan Bernstein

If Watergate Happened Today, Would Nixon Have Survived?

The 50th anniversary of the Watergate arrests is approaching: The first break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters was on May 28, 1972, but the botched return on June 17 produced arrests and eventually brought Richard Nixon’s presidency to a premature end on Aug. 8, 1974. The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan has what is sure to be a popular opinion: Had Watergate played out in today’s media environment, Nixon would have survived.

I’m not so sure.

There are many issues involved — the media, Congress, overall partisanship, and the nature of Nixon’s crimes and presidency. Yes, today’s news environment is very different from that of the early 1970s, which was the peak of “neutral” media — that is, news organizations whose journalists explicitly thought of themselves as neutral.

This doesn’t mean that they were truly neutral; no such thing is possible. But their biases were different from those of the explicitly partisan press of the 19th century — and the revived partisan press that has become far more important, especially on the Republican side, in the 21st century. It was also the peak of broadcast television, with the vast majority of TV viewers tuned in day after day and night after night. People watched the network evening news because there weren’t many other options.

But Watergate wasn’t really a media story. Sure, the reporting was important. Yet the big breakthroughs in the investigation came from career prosecutors in the Department of Justice, the special prosecutors who took over the investigation in 1973, and Senate and House committees. Good investigative reporting broke stories, and those reports helped keep the pressure on the White House and Nixon’s campaign committee. But a lot of the pressure was internal, as various players who had committed a series of crimes attempted to shift the blame and find some set of someone-elses to take the fall.

True, there was no significant Republican-aligned media to either ignore the whole thing or to blame Democrats for it. It’s not clear, however, how much of a difference that really makes. Fox News and other Republican-aligned media were already in place during former President George W. Bush’s second term, yet his approval ratings dropped below 40% when things went bad in Iraq — and below 30% when recession hit. Granted, that’s not the same thing as scandal.

As for former President Donald Trump, it’s hard to be certain of where his approval ratings should have been based only on questions of peace and prosperity, but it certainly appears that economic conditions would have predicted solid approval ratings right up to the pandemic-induced recession in 2020. Instead, Trump’s approval ratings fell well below 40% in his opening months, and recovered only to the low- to mid-40s for most of the remainder of his presidency.

What else can the Trump experience tell us? Like Nixon, Trump was unable to prevent a special prosecutor from being named to investigate him. But the course of the investigation was different. By the time Robert Mueller was named special counsel in 2017, it was clear that Trump had welcomed Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and that he had almost certainly obstructed justice. That’s essentially what Mueller found. In 1973 and 1974, by contrast, regular disclosures made the crimes of Watergate look worse and worse.

When the Ukraine scandal broke in 2019, Democrats moved toward impeachment fairly quickly, and put little effort into pushing for an independent counsel. The same happened with Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election — which, of course, could still wind up producing indictments of high-ranking officials, including the former president. At any rate, while Trump escaped conviction twice, the second time was hardly a sure thing, with seven Republican senators joining every Democrat in finding Trump guilty.

The Watergate scandal unfolded slowly, and revelations continued right up to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 (in fact, they continued for years after, since it took decades for all the White House tapes to be released). This was important not only because it made for a worse media narrative. It’s also important because for two years, Nixon had asked Republicans in Congress to trust him — only to have them find out he had lied.

Trump certainly lies frequently and enthusiastically. But with regard to his scandals, his lies were mainly about things that were already known. And Trump never really asked congressional Republicans to trust him. He did, however, deliver on what congressional Republicans cared about: judicial nominations and a tax cut. In other words, he mainly deferred to them on policy — in contrast to Nixon, who had also failed to campaign for congressional Republicans in 1972.

Would Nixon have survived in today’s conditions? One can never be sure. Partisan polarization would surely have made impeachment and conviction somewhat less likely, and therefore his resignation as well. Indeed, partisan polarization makes it much less likely that any president would treat Congress the way that Nixon did. But the same scandal might well have evolved in the same way, and I don’t see any reason to be confident that the outcome would have been different.