How would Watergate have played out absent the 25th amendment?

October 14, 2011

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the 25th amendment, which did three things: formally specified that if the President leaves office prior to his term ending, the Vice President becomes President (as opposed to “acting President” or “having the powers of the Presidency devlove to them,” which was ambigous in the original Constitution); put in place a system for replacement of the Vice President in the case of his office being absent, with Presidential nomination and majority confirmation in both chambers of Congress (as opposed to the old system of a vacant Vice-Presidency); and provided a detailed set of instructions for dealing with a temporarily incapacitated President.

The 25th amendment was passed in 1967, and the first two sections of it came into immediate use: Vice-President Agnew resigned in October 1973 in the face of a bribery scandal, was replaced by Nixon’s nomination and Congress’s confirmation of Ford (nominated 10/12/73; Senate confirmed 11/27/73; House confirmed 12/6/73), who in turn became President when Nixon resigned (8/9/74), and the nominated Nelson Rockefellar for VP (8/20/74), who was confirmed by the House and Senate (12/19/1974).

This, of course, raises a question: how would the politics of Watergate differed if the 25th amendment had not been ratified at the time?

First, let’s side aside dynamic thinking and assume everything went as it did: if Agnew and Nixon had both resigned with no 25th amendment in place, Speaker of the House Carl Albert would have been next in line under the Succession Act (which is an authorized power of Congress under Article II and, for President-elect under the 20th amendemnt the Constitution) and would have become Acting President, if he had chosen to resign as Speaker of the House. If he chose not to resign or otherwise declined the office, James Eastland, then president pro tempore of the Senate, would have become Acting President if he chose to resign from the Senate. It’s known that Albert had a strong aversion to becoming Acting President; after Watergate subsided, Albert stated that had he needed to be Acting President in the case where Nixon had resigned prior to Ford’s confirmation as VP, he would have resigned the Presidency as soon as Ford was confirmed, as he did not believe a Democratic Speaker should stand in the way of a national electorate that had chosen the Repubilcan Party.

But it’s more realistic to think about this dynamically. Three questions come to mind:

1) Absent the 25th amendment, would Nixon have resigned? ;

2) Absent the 25th amendment, would the House have impeached Nixon? The Senate convicted?; and

3) Absent the 25th amendment, would Albert have accepted the job of Acting President?

First off, I should say that it’s entirely possible that the absence of the 25th amendment and thus the absence of Vice-President Ford may have had exactly no effect on the political trajectory of Watergate. Maybe the release of the Smoking Gun tapes in the wake of U.S. vs. Nixon completely sealed the President’s fate.

But I’m not so  sure.

Let’s start with the issue of Nixon resigning. I think Nixon would have taken an even more aggressive public stance in the absence of the 25th amendment. At the very least,  Nixon and his congressional allies would have been able to get significant public and DC traction throughout 1973 and 1974 with the argument that the entire scandal was a partisan witchhunt, especially prior to the release of the tapes in earlt August 1974. This might have emboldened House Republicans on the Judiciary Committee to stand more  firmly against impeachment in July 1974. If instead of a 10-7 split against impeachment, the House GOPers on the committee had been unanimous against it, that would have radically changed the narrative heading into August.

After the tapes came out August 5th, all GOP Members of the Judiciary Committee announced they would switch their vote in favor of impeachment. But the GOP Members of the House were invariably following public opinion at some level, and a concerted effort by the White House to show Watergate as a ploy to put Albert in the presidency may have been well received by a segment of the population. And, of course, both GOP House Members and GOP voters would have been reluctant to take steps that would create a Democratic President.

In essence, impeachment became a foregone conclusion, in part, because the policy stakes were so low: Ford was a likeable fellow and a center-right conservative. Why keep a crook in office when the alternative is nothing more than a non-crook with similar views? Totally different story if the man waiting in the wings is a northern Democrat. The non-partisan consequences of impeachment/resignation, therefore, may have affected the entire context of the debate over Watergate.

The only precedent we have for any of this is the Johnson impeachment in 1868, which had been the exact same scenario as the above hypothetical: Lincoln had been shot and Johnson had ascended from the Vice-Presidency. Although he was not technically from the opposition party, it was an ideological/power spat with the Radical Republicans that had led to his impeachment, and they stood to directly benefit from it: the Succession Act of 1792 called for the president pro tempore of the Senate to become Acting President, which would have put Benjamin Wade (R-OH) in the office.

Wade’s strong position in favor of impeachment and conviction have been thought to have been part of Johnson’s acquitall; the seven Republicans who voted against conviction in the Senate were thought to have done sone, in part, because of their personal dislike of Wade and/or their dispproval of Wade’s soft campaign in favor of the removal of Johnson. That’s probably evidence in favor of an argument that a looming Albert presidency would have changed things significantly in 1974. In fact, it may be strong evidence: Wade would have been President for only 10 months, as the trial occurred in May 1868 (under the old March-to-March calender). Albert would have been President from probably two years or more.

And thus, I think Nixon would have tried to ride it out, or at least delayed resignation, perhaps until the House vote on impeachment. A party-line vote on impeachment would have boded will for aquittal in the Senate, and Nixon could always resign after the vote if it was a landslide in the House. I mean, he only resigned in actuality when it became clear that he was not only going to be impeached by a massive supermajority but also convicted. Had there been any shadow of a doubt to that, he may have stuck it out. A looming Albert presidency might have created just that doubt. At least for a while.

Second, would impeachment have happened? Conviction? I think impeachment would have happened. The tapes that came out in August provided clear evidence that Nixon had used the power of his position to cover-up a political break-in, and that he knew CREEP and White House staff were involved. I’m less certain about conviction. With Ford waiting in line, I think conviction was almost certain, and perhaps by a massive (90+) supermajority. But as with resignation, the GOP may have held together in oposition more tightly in the face of an Albert presidency. If a large number of House GOP Members (say 80%+) had voted against impeachment, I think the Senate may have failed to convict.  There were 58 Democrats and 42 Republicans, meaning 9 GOP votes were needed. It’s possible that would not have happened.

Would Albert have accepted Acting President? This is a very tough call. He would have been very reluctant. As noted above, he was not thrilled with the prospect of assuming the office if Nixon had resigned prior to the Ford confirmation. And had his assumption of the office been the result of his own party’s actions in Congress, that would have perhaps made him even more queasy about the possibility. Throw in the fact that Albert was thought to have a drinking problem, and it becomes highly questionable whether he would have taken the office.

On the other hand, one thing that may have made him decide to take Acting President was who was waiting in the wings: the president pro tempore of the Senate was  James Eastland, a southern segregationist and notoriously ferocious opponent of civil rights. The thought of Eastland as Acting President (barring some move by the Senate to replace him prior to a Nixon resignation and Albert waffling they saw coming) may have put enormous pressure on Albert to take the office.


2 Responses to How would Watergate have played out absent the 25th amendment?

  1. […] One of the amendments that’s almost never important, but could be strikingly important. I wrote an offshoot about this a few weeks […]

  2. Greg on August 13, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    Coming to this extremely late, obviously, but one route the House might have taken would be to elect a Republican Speaker after voting to impeach Nixon but before the Senate convicted. The constitution doesn’t require that the Speaker be a member of the House so they could have chosen anyone (ie Rockefeller) or even if they decided not to get that creative, Ford was right there.

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