Watergate: The End of the Beginning

Andrew McCarthy’s essay on the fiftieth anniversary of Watergate sheds fascinating light on aspects of the scandal that are typically overlooked or underemphasized, especially by those who see it as a simple case of a “third-rate burglary” ordered and planned by a corrupt administration. McCarthy’s explanation of the connection between the new campaign finance regulations and the scandal in particular adds an important layer to our understanding of the controversy. I’m no expert on the details of the scandal itself, so I will focus on the broader context and effect of Watergate on the relationship between the presidency, party politics, and the administrative state.

I agree fully with McCarthy’s central point: unlike President Clinton and President Trump, Nixon was completely isolated politically, and his fate was sealed largely by that fact, rather than the nature of his offenses. As McCarthy puts it, during Nixon’s time “there was no meaningful counterweight” to the “‘media-Democrat’ complex” that molded public opinion in the 1970s. Thus he lacked “the minimal political support necessary to stave off impeachment,” in spite of the fact that he had won reelection by carrying 49 states less than two years earlier.

The Conservative Movement’s Intended and Unintended Consequences

By the time Trump assumed office, McCarthy argues, things had changed in this critical respect. As he explains, although “President Donald Trump’s misconduct in stoking the Capitol Riot was considerably worse than Nixon’s derelictions,” Trump “enjoyed a political support system of which Richard Nixon could only have dreamed.” This support system protected him from impeachment, and its absence doomed Nixon.

McCarthy is right about this fact: although Trump repeatedly complained of media mistreatment, he enjoyed a much friendlier media environment than Nixon had to deal with in the early 1970s. A robust conservative movement had by 2016 built institutions inside Washington D.C. and mobilized voters in support of its objectives. These institutions and voters provided a base of support for Trump that shielded him from impeachment. One critical difference, however, is easily overlooked. McCarthy repeatedly invokes the “‘media-Democrat’ complex” as Nixon’s great foil. This is true only in a qualified sense. Associating Nixon’s ideological opponents in the media with the Democratic Party neglects the ideological heterogeneity that pervaded the Democratic Party fifty years ago. Some—if not most—of the leading conservatives in America fifty years ago were Democrats. These conservatives may have sympathized with Nixon’s “New Federalism” which generally sought to return power to the state governments, but they were not reliable allies.

The modern American conservative movement changed this. The movement’s explicit approach was to convert one of the two major parties to conservatism rather than work within both parties to preserve conservative wings in each. As conservative magazine Human Events boasted after Barry Goldwater’s nomination as Republican candidate for president in 1964, “The Republican Party is essentially conservative.”  

Though this was an overstatement at the time, it indicated movement conservatives’ fundamental strategy to take control of one of the two main parties. Today conservatives have essentially succeeded in converting the Republican Party into a predominantly conservative party. This has combined partisan affinity with ideological attachment. An attack on President Trump is an attack on both a conservative and a Republican. This provides a double incentive for Republicans (who are now also generally conservative) and their allies to rush to his defense. An attack on Nixon, by contrast, was an attack on a conservative and a Republican, but fewer people both in and out of Washington adopted both labels simultaneously.

This should affect the way we judge the conservative movement. It is fashionable on the right today to argue that the conservative movement was an utter failure, that its leaders were merely part of the reigning establishment, and that before President Trump disrupted that bipartisan ruling class’s hold on power, true conservatives had no real support in Washington. But without the work and success of the conservative movement, McCarthy implies, President Trump would have been in the same predicament as Nixon fifty years earlier. This was a genuine and important accomplishment of the conservative movement. But even this misses the real significance of Watergate.

Watergate and the Administrative Presidency

It is understandable to think of Watergate as a personal scandal that serves as a reflection of the character of President Nixon. However, Watergate cannot be understood without appreciating its political context, which is best depicted in Richard Nathan’s tragically overlooked short book The Plot that Failed: Nixon and the Administrative Presidency.

Nathan’s book is not about Watergate, but about Nixon’s second-term goal of centralizing control over domestic policy in the presidency. As Nathan puts it, Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman “did decide sometime in 1971 or 1972 that they would have to take over the management of domestic affairs to achieve the Administration’s major policy objectives,” especially the shifting of Great Society programs back to the state governments. Their reason for consolidating control over policy in the presidency was to give power back to the states. They sought to use the presidency not to expand the administrative state but to shrink it.

A president seeking to centralize control over domestic policy was nothing new in Washington, of course. The difference between Nixon and his predecessors like FDR was that Nixon’s promises cut against the instincts of the career officials in the bureaucracy, who were hardly enthusiastic about reducing their authority.

Predictably, Nixon encountered great resistance to the New Federalism in the administration, which led to Nixon adopting an approach Nathan calls the “Administrative Presidency.” In short, the administrative presidency attempts to create a White House-led “counter-bureaucracy” to offset the interests of the permanent bureaucracy in the executive departments and independent commissions of the administrative state. Instead of relying on prominent (and therefore somewhat independent) cabinet secretaries and Senate-confirmed appointees, personal friends of the President in the West Wing would be installed at White House agencies like OMB and would direct the President’s domestic policy agenda, persuading the administrative agencies to go along.

Watergate was the end of the beginning: the beginning of a protracted battle, still ongoing, between opponents of the modern administrative state and its officers and defenders.

Nixon’s overwhelming victory in 1972 convinced him that the time to strike was at the beginning of the second term. He announced a new Cabinet, filled with Nixon loyalists rather than independent thinkers, and moved forward on a first-term proposal to create “super secretaries” to consolidate control in the hands of a small number of trusted advisors, including especially Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Roy Ash, and Henry Kissinger. (When asked by a former chair of the RNC about his relationship with the State Department, Nixon allegedly pointed in the direction of the Oval Office and responded, “There’s the State Department.” Thus, his approach to foreign policy management through Kissinger and the NSC mirrored his approach to domestic policy.)

So, what does the administrative presidency have to do with Watergate? On the surface, some connections are immediately apparent. The Watergate break-in itself was authorized by Nixon’s trusted lieutenants, a product of the reliance on people who were closest to Nixon and most supportive of him personally. It was a microcosm of the administrative presidency strategy itself, in which presidents govern through their personal allies rather than the entrenched bureaucracy.  Both the scandal and the administrative presidency generally illustrate the tension between an impartial administration and an imperial presidency.  People elect presidents to implement a policy agenda, but in order to be accountable for this agenda they must impose their will on a bureaucracy that is often sluggish or even intransigent.   

But there is a deeper connection as well. In one of the Watergate transcripts, Nixon complained to Ehrlichman about the permanent bureaucracy, “We have no discipline in this bureaucracy…We always promote the sons-of-bitches that kick us in the ass.” Nixon ran as an outsider promising to shake up a sclerotic government that had become heavily bureaucratized. He was the first president to take on the administrative state. But to his chagrin, he was not able to impose his will on the bureaucracy.

The Watergate scandal was a valuable pretense to weaken Nixon. By the spring of 1973, Ehrlichman was gone, the “super secretary” plan was abandoned, and Nixon’s approach became much more conciliatory. In 1973 Nixon was the first president since Woodrow Wilson not to deliver the State of the Union Address to Congress in person. After Watergate Nixon was forced to abandon both his New Federalism agenda and the administrative presidency approach to implementing it.

Nixon was an outsider who was elected to the presidency twice by running against the entrenched modern state. But those interests still held much of the power in Washington and Nixon found it difficult to translate his personal victories into substantive policy reforms.

In this light, Watergate appears not as an isolated political scandal, but as the end of the beginning of the war for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” This broader context of Watergate is neglected by many scholars.

John Marini, a notable exception, agrees that “the bureaucracy played a far more important role in Watergate than is commonly admitted” and that Nixon’s “attack on the governmental bureaucracy…precipitated the Watergate crisis.” It was the bureaucracy that leaked information about Watergate to the press. As Marini writes, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein “merely served as the conduit by which the bureaucracy undermined the authority of the elected chief executive.”

Others have followed in Nixon’s footsteps, attempting what Nixon could not accomplish. Outsiders and opponents of the administrative state are sometimes elected to the presidency: most notably, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump (or even the Speakership, as with Newt Gingrich). They take the fight to the permanent bureaucracy. None have been fully successful, but each has accomplished more than the one who preceded him.

This is the broader context of Watergate. Nixon was rightly perceived as a fundamental threat to the bureaucracy, and Watergate took on the magnitude of a crisis in part because of who occupied the White House.  The conservative movement, in its nascency in the early 1970s, was not yet equipped to support a president who threatened the administrative state.  But as McCarthy notes in his essay, that fundamental fact has changed.

Watergate is often depicted as the beginning of the end of an era: the end of the imperial presidency, or the end of the tumultuous state-building years of the 1960s and early 1970s. But in its most profound aspect, Watergate was the end of the beginning: the beginning of a protracted battle, still ongoing, between opponents of the modern administrative state and its officers and defenders.