One of the great mysteries of American political history is how Bill Clinton survived multiple sex scandals that destroyed other politicians.
It had to do with timing. Stray missiles once in a while can wound a candidate, but he can recover. In 12 years as the popular governor of Arkansas, Clinton had made a lot of friends. That's what distinguished the Clinton case from that of Gary Hart or Herman Cain. It's unlikely though that even Clinton could have survived a big barrage if it had happened all at once.
When revelations of Clinton's 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers erupted before the New Hampshire primary in 1992, if it was quickly followed by charges of sexual harassment by Paula Jones based on a 1991 incident, and, even worse, charges of assault and rape by Juanita Broaddrick, Clinton's candidacy would have been blown out of the water.
Jones did not make her charges until well after Clinton became president, in a conservative magazine in 1994, and later at a right-wing conference. She looked like a pawn of Clinton's sworn enemies rather than someone with a serious grievance. Broaddrick did not make her charge until April, 1998, twenty years after the alleged incident, when the statute of limitations had well passed. And she had initially denied under oath that anything untoward had occurred.
If Clinton had been knocked out of the Democratic race shortly before the New Hampshire primary in 1992, it's unlikely the Democrats could have won the election that year. The remaining field of candidates -- Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown, Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey -- was decidedly weak. George H.W. Bush would have been re-elected.
Clinton faced other dangerous times from his risky behavior. If his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, which began in November 1995, had been discovered before the 1996 election, he might well have been forced off the ticket in favor of Vice President Al Gore, who would almost certainly have beaten Republican nominee Bob Dole.
More ominously for Clinton, after the Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998, about seven Democratic senators, most notably Robert Byrd of West Virginia, were preparing speeches urging Clinton to resign for the good of the Democratic Party, according to Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward in his book Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergage. The group included Dianne Feinstein of California, Bob Graham of Florida, Harry Reid of Nevada, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, and Joe Biden of Delaware. Biden said in early September 1998 the Democrats' chances in the mid-term elections would be better without Clinton as the head of the party. Many Democratic senators at the time said privately that their wives were furious and contemptuous of Clinton.
"It was a volatile situation. One forceful public request for the president's voluntary resignation by a Democratic senator could start a panic," Woodward wrote (page 469). "In all, it looked like maybe as many as half the Democratic senators privately wanted or would prefer that Clinton resign." Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota told Clinton attorney Greg Craig that "you're only about three days away from having a senior delegation of Democratic senators going to the White House to ask for the president's resignation." Back at the White House, Clinton advisor John Podesta said "there isn't much holding them together. There could be a stampede."
If Byrd or Biden had broken ranks, followed by six other senators in 24 hours calling on Clinton to resign and a wave of media coverage suggesting a trend, holding Democratic support for Clinton would have been difficult. Only 12 Democratic senators were needed to join the Republicans in order to remove Clinton from office. Public division in Democratic ranks would have meant the death knell for Clinton's presidency and calls for Gore to replace him.
It almost happened.
Two years later, running as an incumbent with the Clinton scandals completely behind him and a strong economy to boast about, President Al Gore would have had a much better chance of beating George W. Bush.
If Bill Clinton had resigned in disgrace in 1998, or if he was removed from office by Senate vote after impeachment, it's hard to imagine Hillary Clinton ever mounting a credible bid for the presidency.
Bill Clinton saved his presidency, and his legacy, by the skin of his teeth. Sensing danger, he immediately called a meeting of Senate Democrats and apologized for his behavior. The tide began to turn in his favor when Salon magazine revealed that Clinton's sanctimonious tormenter, Rep. Henry Hyde, was himself an adulterer who hypocritically characterized an affair at the age of 40 as a "youthful indiscretion." A sense that Republicans were over-reaching in their impeachment quest took hold.
Clinton maintained popularity with the American people, and presided over a strong economy. Democrats did surprisingly well in the mid-term elections, and Clinton easily survived an impeachment trial in the Senate.