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Watergate's legacy won't go away: No denying similarities between then, now

Carl P. Leubsdorf

As a journalist who lived through the traumas of the Watergate scandal more than four decades ago, I'm often asked to list the parallels and contrasts between the troubles surrounding President Donald Trump and the events that brought down President Richard Nixon.

The spate of sensational disclosures is similar, though it's all higher profile in the age of the internet, Twitter, and 24-hour cable news. So is the incessant speculation.

But the most important similarity may be that, at this early stage, the likely end of the probe into possible collusion between Trump's campaign and the Russians is as difficult to predict as was the end of the scandal stemming from the June 1972 break-in at Democratic National Headquarters. Nixon's resignation came 26 months later.

For most of that period, the consensus in Washington was that he would survive. His political base stayed loyal. He succeeded in covering up his role in the scandal — until exposed by the evidence on his own taping system. And he had a pretty good insurance policy: the widespread belief his inexperienced vice president, Spiro Agnew, was unfit to be president in the midst of the Cold War.

But that circumstance changed drastically 16 months into the scandal when Agnew was forced to resign after the disclosure he accepted bribes while governor of Maryland and vice president. He was replaced by the House Republican leader, Rep. Gerald Ford. Ironically, Nixon thought Ford would provide similar protection. But he failed to recognize the Michigan congressman's bipartisan popularity in Congress and the widespread recognition among his colleagues that he was decent, honorable, and capable.

Trump has no similar insurance policy. Despite his hyper-partisanship and his misleading arguments in the recent health care battle, Vice President Mike Pence has a generally solid reputation among his former GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill. He conveys steadiness, and he brings a level of governmental experience as a congressman and governor that contrasts directly with the shortcomings of the unprepared, mercurial president. Though he has been very loyal to Trump, almost to the extent of embarrassment, Pence recently conveyed a minimal degree of separation by noting Donald Trump Jr.'s infamous meeting with the Russians took place before he joined the GOP presidential team.

If the Trump presidency reaches crisis level, Pence most likely will be regarded as an acceptable alternative, just as Ford was.

The former Indiana governor has one downside, which probably wouldn't affect the likelihood of his succeeding to the presidency but might affect prospects for a post-Trump political honeymoon. Throughout his career, Pence has displayed a rigid ideology that seems not only to the right of the country but also to the right of the conservative-dominated GOP. During his congressional career, he consistently ranked among the two dozen House members with the most conservative voting records, and right-leaning groups hailed him last year as the most conservative vice presidential choice of modern times.

He has shown that by his role in staffing domestic departments with equally conservative former House colleagues such as Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, helping to pull a president once regarded as non-ideological to the right.

Concern about the extent of his conservatism might prevent the kind of general acceptance accorded Ford, who governed as a relative centrist in the less-conservative GOP of his day, something he underscored by choosing New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, the leader of the party's liberal wing, as his vice president.

That selection was a major factor in prompting Ronald Reagan's nearly successful 1976 conservative primary challenge to Ford. A challenge from the right would seem less likely if Pence were to succeed Trump before the 2020 election than one from an anti-Trump conservative like Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Whatever happens, The New York Times reported, the vice president will be prepared politically.

Ford, though initially popular, lost in 1976 in part because of a series of political errors, including the pardon of Nixon that has looked better in the ensuing years and a debate gaffe in which he insisted incorrectly that Communist Poland was not under Soviet domination. Still, he came within 17,000 votes of winning a full term in the only presidential election Republicans lost during their 1968-88 era of national domination.

The current times are more complicated politically — but less Republican nationally. Though the GOP holds the White House, Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven elections. But just as the events of the next several years will determine the fate of the Trump presidency, these and subsequent events will determine what comes next, including the nature and appeal of any post-Trump Democratic alternative.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.