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Romney as Nixon? 2012 Carries Unsettling Echoes for GOP

By Sean Trende - December 21, 2011

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First, although the 1968 election was something of a perfect setup for Republicans -- the Democratic Party was divided, the country was in chaos, the incumbent was unpopular -- Nixon nearly managed to blow it.  His mushy political convictions contributed mightily to this:  He didn’t tack far enough rightward to head off George Wallace’s third-party candidacy. 

At the same time, he decided to sit on his lead rather than come up with a strong response to Humphrey’s leftward tack toward the end of the campaign.  This allowed the race to tighten considerably.  Nixon won the popular vote by less than a point, and came awfully close in Ohio and New Jersey to seeing the race thrown to the House of Representatives (which was controlled by Democrats).

The latter parallel should be particularly alarming for Republicans, as Romney seems to have taken a similarly passive approach to the series of “not Romneys.”  By failing to make peace with the conservative wing of the party, and by forgoing the opportunity to make an affirmative case for himself, he has placed himself in a precarious position where his nomination is dependent on the other candidates imploding.  A similar approach to the general election could blow a historic opportunity for Republicans.  After all, Nixon did manage to squeeze through, but he was denied the resounding majority he could have used as political capital to govern.  Of course the worst case scenario for Republicans is that Romney mimics the passive Dewey campaign and loses.

More importantly, Nixon’s political malleability did not suddenly end once he was elected.  In office, he veered leftward and rightward almost indiscriminately, to the point where historians still debate whether he’s best described as the end of the liberal Republicans or the beginning of the conservative Republicans.  (In a former job, I had an opportunity to listen to the Nixon tapes at the National Archives.  In addition to learning a new variety of expletives, I heard Nixon insist that there would be no “jawboning” in response to growing inflation -- only a month before ranting about the need to jawbone against inflation.)

Now, if Romney is elected, he’ll be different from Nixon in one critical way.  He’ll almost surely have a Republican House and Senate to work with.  Nixon frequently brooded on his tapes about the payback that would be dealt to liberals during his second term, when he had his most conservative Congress to date.  Perhaps Romney’s first term would give us some insight into what such a Watergate-less Nixon administration would have looked like.

But if the 2014 midterms were to go poorly for Republicans, the House and Senate could go right back into Democratic hands.  That could lead to a series of choices by Romney that really could blow up the party (in the same vein, I tend to agree with Stu Rothenberg that the best thing that ever happened to Republicans was John McCain losing), and bring about the Ghost’s vision of an unmourned Republican grave.

Remember, Romney’s defense of his actions in Massachusetts is that he had a liberal Democratic legislature to work with, and he had to tack leftward to govern.  But the Republican base (just like the Democratic base) isn’t particularly interested in governing.  More accurately, their vision of governing involves adhering to a set of principles to guide decisions, and to persuade the populace of the rightness of those decisions.  If Romney’s instinct is to work with Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer in order to “govern,” it would have long-reaching negative consequences for the party.

So what should Republicans do?  The problem they face -- and I think this really sums up the convulsions of the primary season thus far -- is that it is by no means clear what the answer is.  Even setting aside Watergate, was the Republican Party better off nominating Nixon in light of the alternatives?  Though highly debatable, I think the answer is “probably so”: George Romney was too erratic, Nelson Rockefeller was too liberal, and Reagan, at that point, was too inexperienced. 

Remember, the fact that Romney has severe weaknesses doesn’t make the alternatives good candidates, much less better candidates than Romney.  A presidency is so much more than a series of policy choices, and it’s by no means certain that Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry would be able to fulfill the many other duties of a president in a way that pleased conservatives -- assuming that they were even able to win the general election.

And what if Mitt Romney reaches the general election?  It’s true that, long-term, the Republicans are probably better off today for losing to Barack Obama in 2008.  But the stakes are much different for the GOP this time around.  Again, we can ask ourselves whether, absent Watergate, the Republican Party and conservative movement would have been better off without Nixon?

I think the answer is a clear “no.”  For one thing, the most important thing a president does is choose Supreme Court justices.  During Nixon’s term, he replaced two very liberal Justices: Earl Warren and Abe Fortas.  He also shored up the conservative wing by replacing Justices Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan.  This sharply limited Warren court activism.  Had Hubert Humphrey selected the next justices, his appointees certainly wouldn’t have included William Rehnquist or Lewis Powell, and a slew of critical 5-4 and 6-3 decisions from the 1970s would have gone the other direction.  

Likewise, Antonin Scalia is 75 years old, as is Anthony Kennedy.  If Obama were to replace either of them, the resulting court would probably be the second most liberal court in history, with only the 1962-1969 Warren court being further to the left. The next president would also have an excellent chance at replacing Ruth Ginsburg. While Romney’s choices may not be ideal conservatives -- though they certainly might be, depending on the makeup of the Senate -- they would almost certainly be different than Obama’s.

Perhaps most importantly, the health care bill goes fully into effect in 2014, and if nothing else, Romney would almost certainly sign legislation to repeal it.

But all of these are debatable propositions.  That’s the real problem for Republicans this cycle: The time is right, but unlike 1980, it isn’t clear that there’s a candidate who can rise to the occasion.  Voters will have to make a very, very tough decision in the coming weeks and months.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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