But the most memorable intervention by moderate Republicans happened in the case of Richard Nixon. Conservative Republicans attempted to run cover for Nixon, arguing that his actions – attempting to bug the offices of the rival campaign in 1972, a few break-ins by administration cronies – were ordinary politics. They may have been dirty tricks, but not impeachable offences.
Moderates disagreed. Confronted with mounting evidence of Nixon’s crimes, several moderate Republicans sided with Democrats to advance articles of impeachment. Hamilton Fish, a Republican from New York, said he made his decision “with deep reluctance”, but that “the evidence is clear”. Only when it became clear that Nixon could not survive an impeachment trial in the Senate did conservatives go to him to negotiate his resignation.
It was a moment that crystallised what so many people thought at the time: that after a brief flirtation with right-wing politics, the Republican Party had swung back to the centre. The future Republican Party would be one that advocated smaller government programs, yes, and would favour more of a role for state governments and private industry than federal government – but it would ultimately be rational, technocratic, and moderate.
What they didn’t realise was they were witnessing the last gasp of moderate Republicanism. During the 1970s, grassroots movements organised around religious values, anti-government populism, and opposition to racial integration and civil rights began popping up all over the country. They increasingly focused their attention on the Republican Party, believing it was the best vehicle for a more conservative political party. And they were right. When Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election, the Republican Party was transformed.
It was the 1990s, though, when the final assault on moderate Republicans, already endangered, began in earnest. That decade saw the rise of the label RINO, Republican in Name Only, applied to any Republican who deviated from the conservative line. Party members were increasingly expected to vote together, and as the party moved further right that put pressure on moderates to either fall in line or leave the party.
It took some time for the old moderates to die off, get voted out, or switch parties, but they mostly did over the next few decades. The demand to hew to the right even started taking out conservative office-holders like Eric Cantor, who was defeated by a primary challenger who held anti-immigration positions.
In the new Republican Party of the 21st century, there was no room for moderate Republicans. Yet the idea persists, because it was such a core part of US politics for so long. Senators like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, with a few key votes, have been able to cultivate an image of moderation, even as their voting records show them to be solidly conservative and, especially in the case of investigations into President Trump, unwilling to set aside party loyalty for civic duty.
Indeed, that’s already clear from the first few days of the Senate trial. When Democrats asked to include more evidence and witnesses – news has broken since the House impeachment vote, and the White House refused to allow administration officials to testify in those hearings – every single Republican senator voted no.
Given that track record, senators like Romney, Murkowski and Collins should be getting very little attention. Not just because they are not as moderate as they seem, but because to focus on their ostensibly open minds is to misconstrue what is actually happening in the Senate. Donald Trump is not on trial, because the Republican majority has already decided to acquit him – and many senators, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have said as much on the record.
The Senate trial is instead an opportunity to lay out the extent of White House wrongdoing and shine a spotlight on continued obstruction from the administration. And it is also a chance to show the American people that, despite the fantasy of the moderate Republican, the party has no interest in holding the president to account, no matter how he violates his oath of office.
Nicole Hemmer is an Associate Research Scholar at the Obama Presidency Oral History Project, Columbia University.