Once upon a time a president really wanted to be re-elected, so he . . .


WASHINGTON -- The president is easily elected to a second term despite a growing scandal during his re-election campaign. It looks as though he is home free, but the scandal continues to grow, drip by drip, with new disclosures almost daily, steadily eroding his reputation and threatening to undermine his ability to govern effectively.

Richard Nixon and Watergate in 1973? Yes, but also Bill Clinton and fund-raising excesses in 1997. While only the most partisan of Republicans are likely to suggest that the two cases are equal in misconduct, or that the final outcome will be the same, the similarity in the way both episodes have unfolded is undeniable.

Watergate began with excessive zeal to affect a presidential election; then a failure to come clean led to charges of cover-up in the White House. The current Clinton money-grabbing fiasco already appears to harbor both elements. There is also the irony that neither the Nixon nor the Clinton campaign needed to go to ethical excess in order to win re-election against weak opponents. And the defense in the Watergate case, that both sides do the same things, has been explicitly stated by President Clinton.

The result, as in Watergate, is that Mr. Clinton like Nixon is beginning to see slippage in the polls. Nixon dropped in the Gallup Poll from 68 percent favorability to 54 by April, 1973. According to the Washington Post/ABC News poll just out, public approval of Mr. Clinton has fallen from 60 percent in January to 55, with disclosures such as overnight White House ** stays to reward contributors.

There is no parallel with Watergate, at least as far as we know, in reports that the Chinese government may have planned to pump money into the 1996 presidential and congressional campaigns. But in this report the Clinton White House has found itself in conflict with the FBI, as Nixon was in Watergate in his effort to get the FBI to cooperate in that cover-up.

Politically, both presidents enjoyed rosy positions after their re-elections with respect to the opposition party. The Democrats after the 1972 election were totally demoralized, their nominee, George McGovern, having been humiliated by the election result. After the 1996 election, the Republicans, while retaining control of Congress, found their ideological leader, Speaker Newt Gingrich, himself under a dark ethical cloud that has undermined his effectiveness as spokesman and tactician for his party.

Erosion of influence

But after Watergate began unraveling Nixon could never take political advantage of the Democrats' demoralized and disorganized state. And Mr. Clinton is beginning to see an erosion of influence. Many fellow Democrats in Congress are already putting distance between him and themselves, and Republicans are increasingly emboldened to take him on.

Nixon's undoing in 1973-74 was a combination of highly publicized Senate hearings on Watergate and the investigation by two special prosecutors, leading to House deliberations on impeachment that he short-circuited only by his resignation.

Mr. Clinton already faces a similar Senate investigation into fund-raising practices in his re-election campaign, and a growing clamor from Democrats as well as Republicans in Congress for appointment of an independent counsel to delve into the whole business.

Nixon in 1973 sought to upset the investigation by firing special prosecutor Archibald Cox, but his ''Saturday Night Massacre'' that also cost him the resignation of Attorney General Elliot Richardson only added to his political woes. Mr. Clinton's own attorney general, Janet Reno, has repeatedly declined to ask for an independent counsel, but the involvement of the FBI in the whole matter now is another reason for her to act.

None of this means that President Clinton like Nixon is on the road to impeachment. Nothing he has been accused of is likely to produce the constitutional crisis created by Nixon's crimes. But the situation already has become much more serious than Mr. Clinton's defensive remarks acknowledge.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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