Political observers such as David Gergen and Jeffrey Toobin have said that what we need now is another Howard Baker. For those who may not remember, or were too young to know, Howard Baker was the Republican Senator from Tennessee during the Watergate era. He was the ranking minority member of the Select Senate Committee on Watergate.
What made him special was that he was a Republican member of Congress who was just as interested in getting to the bottom of President Richard Nixon’s transgressions as the Democrats on the committee. We often hear about placing country above party, but it rarely happens. With Baker, it did.
His work stood as an example of a good deed which did indeed go unpunished, even by his party. His work on the Watergate Committee in 1970s was in part responsible for him become first the Minority Leader and then the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate in the 1980s.
It may be easy for us to call for a new Howard Baker now, but it is not as easy as it was at the time of Watergate.
First, the Republican Party has become more extreme. Those on the far right of the party have done an excellent job of “primarying out” moderate incumbents. It’s hard to believe, but even grumpy nasty Mitch McConnell warranted a strong primary opponent in Kentucky when he ran for reelection in 2014. The Republican party is become more evangelical and less contemplative. That combination does not produce Howard Bakers.
Second, legend has it that in years past there was more bi-partisanship. That is probably true, particularly in the Eisenhower and Reagan years. It even happened for LBJ with civil right legislation. Now it’s virtually impossible to get Congress to act in a bi-partisan manner, even when the issue is naming a post office.
Third, and perhaps most important, is that the Republicans are now in charge of both houses of Congress. They were in charge of neither at the time of Watergate. This means that they are not the opposition party. They have an agenda which is not negative in the sense that they want to oppose everything Democrats propose. Now it’s more of an insidious negativity. They want to tear down virtually everything positive that the federal government has done since the New Deal. Whether we are talking about health care, infrastructure, job training, school lunches, housing, education, support for the arts, Republicans want to take away from those in need so that the wealthy can become richer.
McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have long since come to accept Donald Trump as a “legitimate president” because he provides them cover and ensures a considerable base so they can try to advance their agenda. This means that any Republican, whether in the House or the Senate, wanting to assertively want to investigate Trump will run the risk of tearing down the cover that the extreme right has been seeking for years to undo the government safety net.
Who Donald Trump is and what he has done has been an “inconvenient truth” to the Party. He helped put them in power, but he is an endless source of embarrassment, unpredictability and fragility.
This is not to imply that there are no congressional districts or no states from which a sitting Republican could become a new “profile in courage.” It is just more difficult to do now than it was forty-five years ago. Of course, if any Republican is so bold as to step forward, he or she may ultimately be seen as a greater figure than even Howard Baker.