IN the aftermath of Richard Nixon's 1972 landslide victory over George McGovern, the investigation of the Republican break-in at the Democratic party headquarters—the scandal known as Watergate—provided the besieged forces of liberalism with an opportunity to stall the conservative ascendance. Watergate replenished forces on the liberal side of the political spectrum—the Democratic Congress, organized labor, civil rights groups, and the network of public-interest lobbying and reform organizations—supplying new leverage in what was otherwise rapidly becoming, in political terms, a losing ideological battle.
The central conflict between liberalism and conservatism since the late sixties had focused on the aggressive expansion of constitutional rights to previously disfranchised, often controversial groups. These included not only blacks, but others in relatively unprotected enclaves (mental hospitals, prisons, ghettos) as well as homosexuals (who increasingly resented being cast as deviant), ethnic minorities, and women—who had the strongest base of political support but whose movement, nonetheless, engendered substantial political reaction. Just as this expansion of rights had run into growing public and political opposition, the Nixon administration was itself caught flagrantly violating the core constitutional rights of "average" citizens—rights for which there was, in general, broad consensual support.
The official Republican sanction of the break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters, the secret wiretapping of fourteen government officials and three newsmen, the burglary of anti-war activist