When the Watergate scandal drove Richard Nixon from the presidency 44 years ago, the Republican Party survived because its establishment leaders pushed back against his criminal behavior.
Sen. Barry Goldwater and others told Nixon he lacked the voters to escape impeachment, and he resigned. His replacement, Vice President Gerald Ford, a decent and respected man, helped put the GOP back on course. In 1980, the party won the Oval Office again behind Ronald Regan and then the two George Bushes, and re-established itself as part of the nation’s historic framework.
But today, the old establishment has surrendered itself to the Party of Donald Trump, crumbling before the deliberate destruction of the ethical and moral standards of the Grand Old Party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan.
Of the 16 Republican presidential hopefuls who challenged Trump for the party nomination in 2016, only one, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, remains a viable party national figure standing up to the president.
Trump’s personally constructed takeover of the party came out of the blue, transforming it from an advocate of small government and fierce foreign policy into a powerhouse of racial division and phony populism with white-supremacist tinges.
In the general election, he parlayed general and gender hostility toward former Democratic first lady Hillary Clinton to an Electoral College victory that shocked the country and beyond but fell 2.8 million votes short in the popular count.
He muscled his way to party dominance despite GOP majorities in both House and Senate that soon fell in line rather than defy his demonstrated political clout. Yet they were unable or unwilling to deliver much on his legislative proposals in his first year in office.
Thus, the Grand Old Party now finds itself now with another beleaguered president whose tenure is imperiled by various allegations of political and personal misconduct.
Today there seems to be no Barry Goldwater figure of sufficient political or moral stature willing or able to go to Donald Trump to tell him the jig is up. Indeed, his loud and intense base of support seems sufficient at this stage of the Mueller investigation against him to give him hope of political survival in the end.
Meanwhile, the president and his defense lawyers continue to argue there was “no collusion” by the Trump organization or administration with the Russian elections meddling, amid speculation Trump may eventually resort to firing Mueller.
So the party finds itself potentially facing a rerun of that destructive episode, recovery from which might not be so easy with much of the party so hollowed out by the Trump phenomenon.
Hence the November midterm elections loom as much more important than usual, with turnout in both parties key to whether the Trump reign of chaos and mutual animosity will be halted, slowed or licensed to continue on its merry way for two more years.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. Readers may respond to this column — distributed by Tribune News Service — at [email protected]