The paradox of Bill Clinton's current situation is that those who want him to go should want him to stay. And those who want him to stay should want him to go.
Let me explain. A growing number of Republicans have called on Clinton to resign. Yet Democrats largely defend the president, and the polls seem to back them up. A Los Angeles Times poll released Sunday showed Clinton's job approval at 65%; a mere 9% wanted him impeached and just 21% more thought he should resign.
With those numbers, the controversy might seem to be settled. But it isn't, because elected officials nationwide are affected by Clinton where it matters most--in their own careers.
Consider the situation from their point of view: In just 10 weeks is the national midterm election, in which 34 Senate seats, 36 governorships and all 435 seats in the House come before the voters. Political scientists call it an "iron law" that the party holding the White House loses seats in the midterm balloting. It's been the rule since 1934. Why? Because those loyal to the party out of the White House are more motivated to vote, while those whose allegiance is to the "in" party tend toward complacency.
Yet depending on the popularity of the incumbent, the White House party's midterm losses can range from mild to massive. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy, fresh from saving world peace in the Cuban missile crisis, limited Democratic losses to just five seats in the House, and the Democrats even gained a Senate seat. By contrast, the 1974 midterms were a referendum on the recently resigned Richard Nixon; the GOP lost 47 seats in the House and five in the Senate.
But if Clinton's poll ratings stay this high, doesn't that suggest that such losses will be minimal? Yes, but politicians are more interested in Clinton's ratings two months hence--after more Lewinsky evidence trickles out--when real voters go into the booths.
So why aren't Democrats calling for Clinton to resign? Don't they want the albatross of his presidency lifted from around their necks? The answer is that many do in fact wish he would disappear, but they don't dare say so, because of party loyalty. Plenty of Republicans were blindly loyal to Nixon till the day he resigned; indeed, many rank-and-filers were angrier at the maverick Republicans who criticized Nixon than they were at Democrats who had opposed him all along. Nobody will know if a nervous Democratic office holder passively hopes that Clinton goes away, but everybody would notice if that same Democrat actively calls for Clinton's removal.
Conversely, Republicans calling for Clinton to resign are putting their antipathy for Clinton ahead of their party's best interest. Do they really want Al Gore in the White House, with a two-year headstart on the 2000 presidential election? That's what happened in 1974, after Nixon resigned. His successor, Gerald Ford, was phenomenally popular at first. Whereas Nixon's last Gallup poll approval rating was 24%, Ford's first rating as president was 71%. Ford's subsequent pardon of Nixon chopped his numbers down by more than 20 points, but even so, Ford came within an eyelash of holding the White House in 1976, and the GOP overall had a pretty good year.
So if Democrats had been thinking solely as Democrats during Watergate, they would have left the hated Nixon to twist slowly and visibly in the wind for the entirety of his scandal-stained term. Then the 1976 election would have been another Democratic landslide.
Of course, such cynical partisan calculation is unpalatable to the public. So no matter what they really think, Republicans keep blasting, and Democrats keep defending. But help for beleaguered Democrats has arrived in the form of Sam Nunn, the highly respected, safely retired former Democratic senator from Georgia. In an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post, Nunn demanded that Clinton make "a voluntary and complete disclosure of all relevant matters concerning alleged acts of illegality." Yet even if Clinton did that--and there's little reason to think that he will--Nunn wrote that Clinton still might have to resign.
Clinton, of course, will reject such advice. But if the voices, from party stalwarts as well as the ballot box, continue to get louder, then he eventually will have to pay heed. And so the paradox: Clinton here today is good for Republicans, but Clinton gone tomorrow is good for Democrats.