A Little Watergate Blogging

by Jonathan Bernstein

I posted earlier about the Reagan-era David Broder column that Ezra Klein used this morning to make good points about Barack Obama.  Broder said:

One measure of that transition was last week's Gallup Poll showing Reagan trailing two leading Democrats in trial heats for the 1984 election. Former vice president Walter Mondale had a 52-40 percent lead, and Sen. John Glenn of Ohio had a 54-39 advantage.

Such leads for opposition candidates are extremely rare at this stage of the cycle when all presidents, including Reagan, enjoy an aura of authority.

Well, I don't know how rare it is, which brings up a worthwhile historical point.  One of the things that people find puzzling about Watergate is: why did Nixon do it?  After all, Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern in one of the largest landslides in history; surely there was no reason for him to take the huge risks entailed in criminal activity targeting the woeful Democrats.

As you've no doubt guessed by now, the answer is that Nixon's reelection was hardly a sure bet a little earlier in the cycle.  The 1970 midterms went badly for Nixon, leading to plenty of speculation that he was a one-term president. Here's a fun column from May, 1971, referring to an eight-point lead that Ed Muskie held over Nixon at that point.  And even as late as mid-January, 1972, Muskie was still tied with Nixon.  That's when Muskie looked like the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination.  When Muskie faltered (don't forget - it was at least in part because the Nixon campaign undermined him), Nixon and his operatives didn't really believe that they could be so lucky as to face McGovern, at least not until very late in the process.  They expected to either face Hubert Humphrey, who of course had lost a very narrow race in 1968, or Ted Kennedy -- until late in the game, Nixon didn't understand the brand new, reformed, Democratic presidential nomination process, and believed that McGovern might still be a stalking horse for Kennedy (see Fred Emery's great history, Watergate).  McGovern only looked like the clear nominee after winning the California primary on June 6 (and even then, Humphrey fought on to a test vote at the convention, so it wasn't a certainty even after California).  The first attempted break-in at the Watergate offices of the DNC had been on May 26.

So: the operations that became Watergate began when Nixon's re-election prospects looked dicey indeed; the early operations may have played a part in getting the Democrats to choose their weakest candidate; and, the full operation was set into place before the political landscape of November 1972 was really clear.  There is, too, some bureaucratic inertia.  Once the switch was turned on, people were hired, and budgets were approved (although no one ever did take credit for approving the budget), it moved along with a momentum of its own.  But I'm not sure it's necessary to explain the quest for information about the Democrats: while it was happening, Nixon was not yet sure he would face and destroy McGovern.

Yes, Nixon probably should have seen that whatever it is he wanted from the Democratic National Committee and from other sources wasn't worth the risk.  But that's because it was risky to do illegal things, not because he had the election sewn up early.