Why Partisans Are Slow to Turn on Their President

It’s not surprising that if you go back and look at the three most significant presidential scandals in modern history (Watergate, Iran-Contra, Lewinsky) that you’ll discover that partisans stayed mostly loyal to their president and that the most likely to turn were the most moderate members from the most competitive states and districts. You can call this putting partisanship over country if you like, and I think that’s fair.

But, at the same time, people work hard to get presidents elected for specific reasons, and when a president is at risk of going down it puts a lot more at risk than the fate of one chief executive. Without getting bogged down in the qualitative differences between burgling your opponents’ headquarters, trading arms to terrorists, and lying about an extramarital dalliance, there were people who actually cared about policy who stood to lose if their champion was laid low.

For conservatives who worked feverishly to deny George H.W. Bush the 1980 Republican nomination, the loss of Reagan would have been a catastrophe. Fans of Nixon couldn’t be comforted by the idea of the more moderate Gerald Ford taking over the job. I don’t think Gore presented the same stumbling block to supporters of Clinton, but he didn’t have the same once-in-a-generation political talent which became obvious when he “lost” to George W. Bush in 2000.

Trump is a different animal. Who are the people who really stand to lose if Trump is replaced by Mike Pence? They’re not serving in Congress, that’s for sure. Almost no one in Congress endorsed Trump. Almost none of them preferred him to Pence in January, and even fewer do so now.

To be sure, there are Trump voters out there who like him and didn’t and wouldn’t like any Republican alternative. But they’re not in charge of holding the president accountable.

Just on ideological grounds alone, Trump doesn’t command much loyalty.

So, while Republican lawmakers may be concerned that they’ll be voted out of office if they turn on Trump, or turn on him prematurely, he has less protection than any of the previous presidents whose actions have tested their party’s elected officials in Congress.

He’s also a far bigger headache than any of his predecessors, including Nixon. Nixon couldn’t shake his original sin no matter how he wriggled and writhed, but he didn’t create a new crisis several times a day. He wasn’t grossly and obviously unprepared to deal with foreign policy or classified information. He didn’t contradict his aides on a routine basis. He had an actual legislative plan and he was capable of implementing it. The only thing that Nixon and Trump seem to truly share is a common enemy in the intelligence community. Don’t forget that Deep Throat turned out to be Mark Felt, who was the Associate Director of the FBI.

That commonality shouldn’t comfort Trump and however you slice it, there’s just no way that Trump has as much rope as Nixon had.

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