WASHINGTON ― If the chairs in the House Judiciary Committee meeting room could talk, the Republicans sitting in them Thursday probably wouldn’t like what they’d hear.
Nearly a half-century ago, their counterparts who protected then-President Richard Nixon suffered a hefty price for it just months later in the 1974 midterm elections: Five of the 10 members who voted against all three articles of impeachment saw their seats flip to Democrats. Four were defeated outright. The fifth retired, and the Republican hoping to succeed him lost.
“They were saying all summer long that there wasn’t enough evidence to say that Nixon knew” about the cover-up, said former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who was a lawyer on the Judiciary Committee impeachment staff in 1974 and is now running against President Donald Trump for the 2020 GOP nomination. “As soon as the tapes came out, they looked like idiots.”
In contrast, House Republicans as a whole lost only 25% of their seats that November ― still a staggering loss rate, but only half of that suffered by members of the Judiciary Committee.
But the history lesson of Nixon’s impeachment ― for covering up the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters to cheat in his 1972 reelection ― will almost certainly be ignored by today’s Republicans, both in the Judiciary Committee and the House generally.
“Cult members can’t see past the Kool-Aid,” said John Weaver, a former aide to late Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Trump’s hold on the Republican Party’s primary voting base has dramatically transformed the GOP. “It was a party, now it’s a cult. And if you are in a cult, the fear of being shunned or ostracized is powerful,” he said. “To challenge him, in fundamental fashion, you’re going to be treated as an apostate.”
Trump supporters, meanwhile, reject the idea that sticking by Trump during impeachment could hurt the party. Shawn Steel, a top Republican National Committee member from California, said average Americans will wind up standing by Trump in 2020. “The Democrats are going to suffer,” he said. “The polls are slipping away from the Democrats.”
Current Judiciary Committee Republicans, in any event, seemed unconcerned about potential consequences for themselves or their party. Rep. Jim Jordan, of Ohio, and others on Wednesday and Thursday repeatedly claimed that Democrats want to cancel the votes of the 63 million who cast ballots for Trump ― ironically echoing arguments made 45 years ago.
“We have weakened the hand of the president and the 220 million people he represents,” Rep. Joseph Maraziti, a New Jersey Republican, said on July 27, 1974, before voting against all three articles of impeachment.
“It’s only Round One,” said Rep. David Dennis, an Indiana Republican, before also voting against all three articles. “There’ll be a good scramble in the House.”
Less than four months later, Maraziti lost reelection by 14 points. Dennis lost his seat by 8 points.
Of course, not all House Judiciary Republicans voted with Nixon in 1974. Of the 17 GOP members, seven voted for at least one of the three articles of impeachment.
Among those, five won reelection, one likely would have won reelection had he not retired to run for governor, and one was defeated.
“It was a different country and a different party back then,” said Ornstein, who was at the time teaching at Catholic University and friendly with the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic chairman, New Jersey’s Peter Rodino. “It was highly partisan, but it was less tribal.”
“They’re completely ahistorical,” GOP political consultant and Trump critic Rick Wilson said of today’s House Republicans, adding that even those who do care about congressional history seem to take away “the worst conceit, and that is that history doesn’t apply to them.”
Any potentially vulnerable House Republican lost in 2018. Michael Steel, a top aide to former House Speaker John Boehner
The 1974 Judiciary Committee’s votes came just days after the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Nixon had to release audio tapes he had withheld. Those were made public on Aug. 5 ― days after the three impeachment articles had been approved by the committee but not yet passed by the full House ― and proved Nixon’s involvement in the DNC burglary and wiretapping cover-up. Nixon announced his resignation the night of Aug. 8.
“Things collapsed on him pretty quickly,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University.
In Trump’s case, the most striking evidence came from Trump himself. On Sept. 25, he released a rough transcript of a July 25 phone call that showed him asking for the “favor” of investigations after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky mentioned military aid. On Oct. 3, Trump told reporters that Zelensky should “start a major investigation into the Bidens,” and moments later added that China should investigate them, too.
Democrats are moving forward with articles of impeachment accusing Trump of abuse of power for using his office to damage former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrat he most feared in 2020, as well as obstruction of Congress for refusing to turn over documents or permit executive branch employees from testifying in the impeachment inquiry.
Trump continues to insist he did nothing wrong, and congressional Republicans have been reluctant to cross him publicly. The only non-Democrat likely to vote to impeach Trump is Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who left the GOP in July because of his unwillingness to support Trump.
The only Republican on today’s Judiciary Committee with a remotely competitive seat is Ohio’s Steve Chabot, whose district voted for Trump by 6 points in 2016, said Dave Wasserman with the Cook Political Report.
This is, in part, because of Democrats’ great success last November, when anti-Trump sentiment helped them pick up 40 seats and control of the chamber. “Any potentially vulnerable House Republican lost in 2018,” said Michael Steel, once a top aide to former House Speaker John Boehner. “The ones that are left have more to fear from a Trump-inspired primary opponent than a general election loss.”
Joe Walsh, a former “tea party” House member who also is challenging Trump for the 2020 nomination, said his onetime colleagues have no interest in the country at large. “They’re more concerned with their base. With gerrymandering and Fox News, as long as their base wants ‘no,’ they’ll vote ‘no,’” he said.