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Politicians aren’t spineless. They’re politicians.

It’s silly to insult Republican members of Congress for responding to political incentives.

McCain and Graham
Alex Wong/Getty

The parallels between Donald Trump’s first few months in office and Richard Nixon’s last few are pretty hard to miss. (I mean, good lord, he met with high-ranking Russian officials and Henry Kissinger on Wednesday.) But just as important as the similarities are the differences.

Specifically, the partisan context today is very different from what it was in 1973 and 1974. Most obviously, Nixon faced an opposition party in Congress. Even though he won reelection in a landslide in 1972, congressional Democrats remained an important check on his power.

Also, significantly, the parties of the 1970s were far, far less polarized than they are today. Indeed, by some measures, that time period was the least polarized in American history since the advent of the two-party system in the 19th century. Sure, there were plenty of liberals and conservatives around, but they existed in both parties. Democrats counted both liberal Northerners and deeply conservative Southerners among their ranks.

This had two important consequences. It meant that Democratic opposition to Nixon was hardly unified. Quite a few of the more conservative Democrats were happy to work with him and even defend him when the Watergate scandal heated up. It also meant that Republicans didn’t uniformly stand behind him.

The real turning point for the Watergate scandal was not so much when Democrats introduced impeachment resolutions, but when some Republicans joined in. As Jonathan Bernstein notes in this excellent thread, many Republicans, both voters and elected officials, still stood behind him to the very end. But those Republican members of Congress who were willing to stand with Democrats and say that Nixon had gone too far sent a signal to the broader political world that it was okay to oppose the president, and they signaled to Nixon that he had to resign.

This is very clearly not the political environment Trump faces today. Our political system is now about as polarized as it’s ever been. Trump has about an 80-point approval rating gap between Democrats and Republicans now, the highest that’s ever been recorded. In Congress, essentially every Democrat now stands in sharp opposition to him, while the vast majority of Republicans are supporting him. They’ve voted for his Cabinet appointees and the American Health Care Act, and most — though not all — Republicans in investigative hearings are trying to deflect the subject matter to issues less damaging to the president. Speaker Paul Ryan has defended Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, while Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pushed back against calls for a special prosecutor for the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia.

Many have criticized Republicans’ intransigence and their nearly uniform backing of Trump as some kind of personality flaw. Unlike their forebears in Nixon’s time, the argument goes, today’s Republicans are spineless and unprincipled, putting politics ahead of their country.

But such criticisms miss the mark. Today’s Republican members of Congress are politicians, just as those who served in Nixon’s time were — no more, no less. And politicians, by their nature, respond to political incentives.

The typical Republican member of Congress today faces a district that is considerably more Republican than would have been the case 40 years ago. And even before he’s going to worry about reelection, he has to worry about renomination. Conservative groups are far more active and potent in primary elections than they were 40 years ago, and the typical Republican member is more worried about facing a well-financed challenger in the primary should he fail to stand up for the president. Joining with Democrats to call for further investigations of Trump might gain a few laudatory headlines but will likely only make reelection and renomination harder.

Partisanship does have its limits, and we may soon reach those. Trump’s popularity can’t drop a whole lot more without him becoming a substantial albatross around Republican members’ necks. But again, if Republicans start attacking Trump at that point, it will be for the same reason they’re largely protecting him today. They’re responding to political incentives. To expect a politician to do something different is like expecting a businessperson to give away her money or a compass to point somewhere other than North.

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