Will Spitzer resign -- or deploy the Clinton/Craig strategy?

Eliot Spitzer has remained governor longer than most people expected after 4 pm ET yesterday. When the news broke that the former prosecutor who once bragged of busting a prostitution ring had recently decided to patronize another, most people assumed that his admission would be quickly followed by an exit from the political stage. However, despite numerous calls for his resignation, Spitzer has not yet departed:

Stunned politicians in both parties last night called on Gov. Spitzer to resign.

Democratic Assemblyman John McEneny (Albany) said:

“I don’t think anyone remembers anything like this. The fact that the governor has a reputation as a reformer and there is a certain assumption as attorney general that you’re Caesar’s wife [above suspicion]. It’s a different element than if you were an accountant.”…

Assembly Republican leader James Tedisco – who had once faced a Spitzer tirade about being a “f – – -ing steamroller” – said:

“For the good of his family, for the good of our state, for the good of the governorship, Eliot Spitzer must resign immediately. He is unfit to lead our state and unfit to hold public office.”

The New York Times editorial board, however, seems to think that Spitzer can rescue himself, although it will take “a strong argument” to do so. They attack Spitzer for calling his prostitution habit a “private matter”, but assert that other politicians have survived such scandals:

It is likely that every aspect of Mr. Spitzer’s other life as Client 9 for the Emperor’s Club V.I.P. — as he has been identified by law enforcement officials — every text message and other secretive communication will be made public. Any politician would have a full-time job just dealing with such revelations. There have been elected officials, over the years, who have survived scandals of this sort. But for Mr. Spitzer, who runs a large and complex state, the burden is especially heavy to show that he has not lost the credibility to push for change, a sound budget and good government, as he promised so confidently a year ago. …

Mr. Spitzer did not seem to understand on Monday what he owed the public — a strong argument for why he should be trusted again. The longer he hesitates, it becomes a harder case to make.

This, of course, is absurd. Had Spitzer turned his presser yesterday into essentially a campaign speech to convince people of his indispensability, it would have been the height of arrogance. Spitzer needed to humble himself in front of the media and the public, apologize to New York’s citizens, and try to douse the fire as best he could. Spitzer managed to do that, but what comes next?

Most people expect a resignation, but they expected that yesterday. At least for the moment, Spitzer appears willing to see if he can survive this and at least finish his one term as governor. How can he do that and retain any credibility? We have seen the start of this process already in Spitzer’s speech, and it appears he will rely on the strategies deployed by two national politicians who have survived their own sex scandals by claiming them as “private” matters that have no impact on their performance in office.

Bill Clinton broke no laws, but his affair with a young intern certainly reflected on his judgment and character, both as a professional and as a person. Having casual affairs with starry-eyed staffers hardly reflects well on any executive; it sets bad examples and amounts to little more than exploitation. When it results in perjury, as it did with Clinton, it ceases being a private matter, but the Clintons sold the entire scandal as nothing more than a prurient irrelevancy played up by their political opponents to ruin him. In fact, they’re still selling that notion — and Spitzer might notice that people are buying it.

Larry Craig also faced political ruin after pleading guilty to disorderly conduct in a Minneapolis airport restroom. Despite his refusal to refute the allegations in court, he claimed that he had not tried to signal an undercover officer for gay sex,but instead merely took a “wide stance” on the toilet. He promised to resign, then failed to do so — and more or less just waited out the outrage by taking a very low profile for a few months. He remains in the Senate until the end of his term in 2009.

Can Spitzer outwait the outrage of the public? Can he just offer a low profile while New Yorkers move on to the next outrage? Can he eventually convince people that his use of prostitutes is just a private matter? I suspect he’ll try.

UPDATE: Commenters remind me of one example I missed: Senator David Vitter (R-LA). Last year, phone records arose that linked Vitter to a call-girl “escort service” ring in New Orleans from a few years earlier. He used a curious combination of denial and apology, and remains in the Senate.