ALTHOUGH A LOSER in the Republican avalanche of Nov. 8, President Clinton has an opportunity to become a winner and a "profile in courage." With less fortitude than was demonstrated by John Adams in resisting public demands for a declared war against France in the crisis of 1798-1800, Mr. Clinton could execute a political ploy that might at first appear shocking, but, in fact, would be refreshingly constructive and audaciously valiant.
In a spirit of high-mindedness designed to place the country first and himself and his political party second, he could take action that will promote harmony and assure progress in solving some of the toughest problems the nation has faced.
The scenario goes like this:
In the next week or so, the president convinces Vice President Al Gore that it is in the best interest of all to join with Mr. Clinton to assure the success of the undertaking.
On or about Jan. 5, 1995, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore submit their resignations. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich ascends to the presidency. As provided for by the Constitution, Mr. Gingrich immediately names his vice president, who is promptly approved by the Republican-dominated Congress.
With both the legislative and executive branches of government under their control, the Republicans move quickly to put their promised agenda in place. Both houses of Congress soon approve all the provisions of the Republican Contract With America, which are enacted into law.
Should President Gingrich, Senator Dole and other Republican leaders drive the party in a direction which receives the approbation of the electorate, they would deserve to be victorious again in 1996. However, should they fail, the voters would have every justification to hand them their walking papers. And certainly, the goodwill engendered by Bill Clinton's generous act would undoubtedly propel him back into the Oval Office for another term.
A far-fetched scenario? Maybe not. History shows something of a precedent for this kind of maneuvering.
While not an identical case, the election of 1916 is instructive.
Woodrow Wilson, a respected scholar of government who had earned a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University in 1886, was running for re-election.
As the campaign wound down, Wilson feared that he was going to lose to Republican challenger Charles Evans Hughes, who had resigned from the Supreme Court to make the race. Wilson thought it would not be in the nation's best interest to have a lame duck president for several months when it appeared that the country was about to become involved in World War I. If he were a lame duck, Wilson knew it would be difficult for him to act with authority in a crisis situation. Also, Wilson knew that if he lost in November, Hughes wouldn't have taken office until the inauguration date of March 4, leaving the country vulnerable for four months. (In 1933, a constitutional amendment moved the inauguration date to Jan. 20.)
Wilson expressed his apprehension to Secretary of State Robert Lansing in a note: "Four months would lapse before he [Hughes] could take charge of the affairs of the government, and during those four months I would be without such moral backing from the nation as would be necessary to steady and control our relations with other governments. I would be known to be the rejected, not the accredited, spokesman of our country; and yet the accredited spokesman would be without legal authority to speak for the nation. The direction of the foreign policy of the government would in effect have been taken out of my hands and yet its new definition would be impossible until March."
So that he might turn over the government promptly to the victor in the event of his defeat, Wilson proposed to have Lansing resign and appoint President-elect Hughes to that position. Then, both Wilson and Vice President Thomas Marshall would resign. Under the existing law of succession, Hughes would then succeed immediately to the presidency. Although Wilson's narrow victory made the scheme unnecessary, the mere fact of its discussion spoke volumes. (By the presidential succession act of Jan. 19, 1886, then in effect, the secretary of state followed next in line behind the president and vice president. This law was superseded in 1947 by the act which provided for the speaker of the House, president pro tem of the Senate and then the cabinet officers to follow in line of succession behind the two top officers of the executive branch. For all intents and purposes, the 25th Amendment has diminished the importance of this act since the incoming president is now empowered to appoint a vice president when the office stands vacant.)
Another historical situation that bears on this involves Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln also felt his chance for re-election was bleak, at best. So, on Aug. 23, 1864, he had his cabinet members sign the back of a paper whose contents he did not, then, disclose to them. Later -- after the Nov. 11 election -- the envelope's contents were read to the cabinet. It revealed not only Lincoln's pessimism over the election, but also his concern regarding the transition from one administration to the other. It read: "This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the president-elect, as to save the union between the election and the inauguration; . . ." (Emphasis added.)
While Lincoln did not expressly talk of resignation, it may well have been an option he was considering.
As it turned out, both Wilson and Lincoln won their presidential races for re-election, so resignations did not take place. While the circumstances differed from today, the principle was quite similar.
Only once in our history has a president resigned -- Richard Nixon. And that was when it appeared likely that he would be removed from office. This scenario sees resignation as a means to a resolution of seemingly intractable issues that need to be resolved.
John Adams resisted the loud demands for a declaration of war against France during his tenure because he knew it was not in the best interest of his fledgling country to fight a major war at that time. He also knew it could well cost him re-election to the highest office -- which it did. Bill Clinton's resignation would also be a service to a nation which is in need of harmony and cohesiveness rather than discordance and conflict.
Martin D. Tullai is director of the History Department at St. Paul's School.