Richard Nixon left the White House for the last time 40 years ago Saturday. Publicly disgraced and abandoned by his party, the 37th U.S. president chose to resign rather than face certain impeachment and removal from office over the Watergate scandal and related crimes.
As the Washington Post reported on Aug. 9, 1974: “Mr. Nixon said he decided he must resign when he concluded that he no longer had ‘a strong enough political base in the Congress’ to make it possible for him to complete his term of office.”
But it wasn’t merely the lack of support in Congress that brought Nixon to ruin. It was a clear lack of public support that did him in. A week before Nixon exiled himself to San Clemente, his approval rating had sunk below 25 percent with no sign of stopping. Quite a comedown after crushing Sen. George McGovern, his Democratic opponent, in 49 states less than two years earlier.
Public opinion all but guaranteed Nixon’s impeachment and ouster 40 years ago. Public opinion all but guarantees Barack Obama won’t be impeached today.
The president is unpopular, certainly. This week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC poll put Obama’s approval rating at 40 percent – his lowest to date, but far from Nixon territory. Besides, unpopularity alone isn’t reason to give Vice President Joe Biden the keys to the Oval Office.
My friend Steve Hayward, who teaches political science at Pepperdine University when he isn’t blogging at Powerline or writing political biographies, argued at Forbes.com recently that impeachment today is “the political equivalent of a nuclear weapon” and therefore out of reach except in the most extraordinary circumstances.
“No impeachment will ever be successful,” Hayward wrote, “that does not generate a broad consensus across party lines.”
Where is that consensus today? It doesn’t exist, not in Congress anyway.
Talk of impeaching Obama ignites a frenzy of enthusiasm among a segment of conservatives who listen to talk radio and follow Fox News. The topic also excites Democratic fundraisers, who made a killing last month when former vice presidential candidate-turned-conservative firebrand Sarah Palin came out in favor of the idea. That’s about it.
Whether Obama deserves impeachment is another matter. Here Nixon’s case remains instructive.
The Constitution provides that a president may be “removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Nixon certainly obstructed justice and suborned perjury, among other crimes. But Congress wasn’t concerned only with Nixon’s criminal behavior. It was prepared to impeach and remove Nixon over his political misconduct.
Nixon broke his oath of office. He disregarded “his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” He “repeatedly engaged in conduct violating the constitutional rights of citizens.” In particular, Nixon used the IRS, the FBI and the Secret Service to harass and punish his political enemies, alleged the second of three articles of impeachment that the House Judiciary Committee approved in 1974.
Hadn’t other presidents done the same? Sure. Franklin Roosevelt used the Federal Communications Commission to shut down Republican radio stations. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson used the FBI to wiretap their political opponents.
Perhaps the same could be said of Obama. His IRS singled out tea party and other conservative groups for excessive scrutiny, although nobody so far has managed to turn up the proverbial “smoking gun” linking the president to those abuses.
Obama has been lax, at best, about taking care that “the laws be faithfully executed.” From waivers to the Affordable Care Act’s mandates for unions and politically connected businesses to invoking “prosecutorial discretion” to exempt 1 million illegal immigrants from deportation, Obama has pushed executive authority to the limit.
Now the president is mulling an executive order that could, in effect, grant amnesty to some 6 million illegal immigrants. Yet the Constitution clearly reserves the power of “naturalization” to Congress, not the president. Does that matter anymore?
Ironically, many liberals have adopted Nixon’s view that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Eric Posner in the New Republic last week, for example, waved off criticism that Obama ignores the law when it’s politically expedient. “The executive branch spends a lot of time in not enforcing laws,” he wrote.
In his 1978 memoirs, Nixon noted with some bitterness that liberals had no problem with a strong executive as long as a liberal occupied the Oval Office. Obama’s record – and the embarrassing contortions of his partisans – suggests Nixon’s complaint still has much to commend it.
Violating the oath of office? Usurping congressional authority? Using the might of the presidency against political foes? Not trivialities. Or, at least they weren’t 40 years ago.