"History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."
Forty years ago this summer, the Watergate scandal swallowed the presidency of Richard Nixon.
I was a boy when that happened, and I'll admit that I didn't understand all the issues involved, but there was one very simple fact that seemed obvious to me.
When Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the White House taping system in July 1973, it was obvious that there was a completely neutral eyewitness to the White House conversations about which lawmakers were asking — the tapes that had been made of those conversations.
Congressional investigators did not have to rely on flawed human memories. They could listen to the tapes, and those tapes could verify what was said and by whom. Anyone who had answered truthfully when asked about his involvement in the coverup would be exonerated. Anyone who had not answered those questions truthfully would be exposed as dishonest.
When the taping system's existence was revealed, I heard many of Nixon's defenders say that they wished he would release the tapes. They would prove he had been telling the truth, and the Watergate scandal would go away.
Well, that was the thinking, but Nixon steadfastly refused to release the tapes — and the longer he did, the more his support tended to erode. Then as now, perception was reality, and the growing perception was that Nixon had something to hide.
That perception turned out to be correct, but the American people, the vast majority of whom had voted for Nixon's re–election two years earlier, were hesitant to believe it. At the time — and still today — I believed that hesitance enabled Nixon to drag the scandal out a few more months.
If Nixon had been blessed with an engaging personality, like the present occupant of the White House, he might have been able to drag his feet long enough to finish his term. But Nixon's was a dark, brooding kind of personality, cold and prickly, not warm and fuzzy. He didn't inspire much loyalty — except from those who, for whatever reason, did his bidding (and paid for it).
Barack Obama, however, does have a warm and fuzzy personality. That is the real secret of his success. His ratings on that question about whether a president (or presidential candidate) cares about people like the respondent are always through the roof. That's what Obama's 2012 campaign was about, wasn't it? It was designed to persuade swing voters that Mitt Romney and the Republicans were elitist snobs who didn't care about ordinary folks — or, to be more precise, blacks, women, gays, immigrants, the poor.
Re–election campaigns tend to be about achievements, those that are finished and those that are works in progress. Well, that's the way they used to be.
While the fact that Obama made history as the first nonwhite president was a pleasant bonus, it wasn't the main reason why most people voted for him in 2008. He was elected mostly because of the terrible economy and the escalating jobs crisis, and Americans wanted to be out of two wars that were sucking up American lives and treasure at an alarming rate.
When times are bad, voters go for the other option.
In short, there were serious problems that needed to be resolved. Certain expectations came with the job, and voters decided, as they almost always do in such a situation, to go with the other party's nominee.
Economists later told America that the recession actually ended after about six months of Obama's presidency, and some kind of recovery should have taken place — but, if asked about it today, most Americans will say that they don't believe the recession ever ended — or, if it did, they don't believe there has been a recovery.
Obama couldn't run on his economic record. He had a more stable foreign policy record in September 2012 — and he may well have intended to run on that record — but then there was that attack on the embassy in Benghazi, and four Americans were killed, including the ambassador. He and Joe Biden continued to mention the fact that Osama bin Laden had been killed on his watch, but the race was close in the autumn of 2012.
Perhaps the Democrats felt the truth about Benghazi would undermine the case they had been making that Obama's foreign policy was succeeding. That is the argument the president's detractors have made, anyway.
That didn't work too well in 2012, but a lot has happened since then. Obama's second–term agenda hasn't been getting any traction — whether that is due, as the president contends, to obstructionism or his administration's own shortcomings, as in the rollout of Obamacare, is a subject for a different debate — and his party already is facing mounting problems in what always (from the perspective of history) figured to be a problematic sixth–year midterm election.
And now the release of emails from September 2012 have raised new and troubling questions about the administration's actions on the night of the attack — and how those actions may have been motivated by domestic political concerns.
House Republicans want to assemble a select committee to investigate, to ask the questions that the emails have raised, but their Democratic colleagues are not sure they will participate.
Seems to me that would be a lot like when Nixon refused to release the tapes.
My understanding is that the Democrats cannot be compelled to participate in the committee's hearings, but the Republicans still would hold them. Do the Democrats really want to let every assertion that is made go unchallenged? And in a midterm election year?
As I understand it, a select committee does not have the authority to charge anyone with anything, but, like the Senate Watergate Committee 40 years ago, it can call witnesses and issue subpoenas.
If no one is there to defend the administration, it will feed a perception that can only add to Democrats' electoral woes.
On the other hand, Republicans need to be careful. The wind is at their backs on this one, but they need to avoid appearing too political. If they make their argument about transparency and good, law–abiding government, it will help their cause.
As will Nixon's true legacy in all of this — the case of United States v. Nixon.