Political morality is in a downward spiral. Decades ago, evangelical leader James Dobson saw this coming, before his own fall from grace. America should have listened.

But when looking at how we got to this dismal place, a useful starting point is what happened 49 years ago.

On Aug. 8, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon resigned from office in disgrace, facing obstruction of justice and other charges related to events surrounding the Watergate break-in.

Nixon’s stated reason for resigning was that he no longer had a large enough base in Congress. This was a euphemism for the fact that he’d lost his own party. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, his party’s presidential nominee in 1964, came to the White House to tell Nixon his support among Republicans had cratered, and Goldwater made it clear he’d personally vote to convict.

The Nixon resignation was hardly a moral high point, but the depths of the downturn since then is striking, as evidenced by former President Donald Trump’s indictment last week for a litany of crimes related to his attempt to unlawfully overturn his loss to President Joe Biden, which led to the events of Jan. 6, 2021. Days earlier, Trump had additional counts added to a previous indictment for illegally possessing classified documents after leaving office, and for obstructing justice. 

We are thus entering a presidential election cycle where Republicans are seriously entertaining renominating a man who is facing at least three, and maybe four, felony prosecutions. These are just the big-ticket items. Lower-level abuses that might have sunk other politicians are too numerous to bring up.

While there is no moral equivalence, it is also worth mentioning that Trump’s likely opponent in 2024, President Joe Biden, is under the shadow of allegations that his family, and maybe himself personally, benefited from influence peddling.

What happened?

Simply put, former President Bill Clinton.

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For those who are not old enough to remember, or have chosen to forget, Clinton was a serial adulterer who abused his power to have a fling with a young intern. Then, according to Congress, he obstructed justice and perjured himself to cover it up. No reasonably informed person denies the essence of this now.

Clinton’s narrative was that, in the words of his wife, he was a victim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” (although he has more recently said that he was “managing my anxieties.”) Clinton was not the first president to have an affair, nor was he the first to take sexual advantage of a subordinate, nor the first to obstruct justice and lie to cover up misdeeds.

He was, however, the first to get caught red-handed, and then use every tool at his disposal to bend the public’s moral compass to fit his needs.

The strategy worked masterfully. Clinton’s approval went up, not down, during his impeachment. This rallied his defenders in the Senate, who stood by him. There would be no Goldwater moment like Nixon had.

Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, saw the consequences of this clearly, writing a public letter in 1998 that crystalized the view of most conservative Christians at the time.

“Although sexual affairs have occurred often in high places, the public has never approved of such misconduct. But today, the rules by which behavior is governed appear to have been rewritten,” Dobson wrote.

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He went on to declare that it is “foolish” to believe that a man who lacked honesty and moral integrity could successfully lead a nation, deeming such a person “fundamentally incompatible” with the good of the nation.

Dobson further explained the real stakes were not about Clinton, but about the effect of his behavior on the people. “What has alarmed me throughout this episode has been the willingness of my fellow citizens to rationalize the President’s behavior. … We are facing a profound moral crisis — not only because one man has disgraced us — but because our people no longer recognize the nature of evil.”

Dobson, for all his own failings, has been thoroughly vindicated. One could cite many examples of public corruption that have received nowhere near the backlash they once would have: Senators who use secret information to push financial loss onto others, state attorneys general who use their public office to profit and attempt to spend millions of public dollars to cover it up, party leaders who inexplicably get rich during their time in office. But none demonstrate it better than Trump.

Trump perfected Clinton’s playbook. His partisans dismiss any charge leveled at him, no matter how serious or overwhelming the evidence, as a political witch hunt. The “vast right-wing conspiracy” has been replaced by the “deep state” or “establishment,” but the idea is the same. The disfigurement of the movement that once housed the “moral majority” is striking.

Much of this support is mired in rank tribalism. But even those who see the hypocrisy, at least in private, argue that they should not unilaterally disarm. Clinton got away with it. So why should “our side” act differently?

This argument was implicit in Dobson’s endorsement of Trump shortly before the 2020 election, when he deemed Trump’s sins as “frivolous personality characteristics.”

In case anyone missed the point, he said, “This is not a junior high or high school popularity/personality contest,” and then listed a list of policy and political positions he believed Trump could deliver on.

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The hypocrisy would be galling if it weren’t so tragic. Dobson’s prophecy was so accurate that he himself fell victim to it. Gauging things only in short-term political interests, he no longer recognized that which he once called immoral.

Trump’s enduring popularity with Republicans can be laid, in significant part, at Clinton’s feet. Dobson was correct in 1998. Clinton’s brazen lies in defense of his own misdeeds were the catalyst to create a political dynamic where too many are incapable of seeing wrong when they prefer not to see it. The fact that Dobson fell victim to his own prophecy only emphasizes the point.

Stopping this vicious circle will only be solved when pastors, party leaders and people around the water cooler — on both sides — hold their own accountable. Goldwater and his allies did this 49 years ago. We should start again today.

Cliff Smith is a lawyer and a former congressional staffer. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works on national security related issues.

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