Sen. Ensign should not quit

Last week, Sen. John Ensign publicly admitted an extramarital affair. Many, many bloggers and commentators have called for his resignation, calling him a hypocrite and pointing out that he called for President Bill Clinton to resign after he admitted to the Monica Lewinski affair. And he has certainly postured himself as a moral family man, particularly when he led the fight to get Sen. Larry Craig to resign after the restroom incident.

So, there ya go. In many cases, the very people who sprang to Clinton’s defense are now calling for Ensign’s job. Isn’t that hypocrisy? At the time, we here at this newspaper thought that the country had far more pressing things to think about than whether the president had an irrelevant sexual liaison in the Oval Office.

And here lies the problem: When the media choose to focus on the salacious details of politicians’ private lives, the media lead the national dialog away from the things that really matter. There has been little indication that John Ensign’s affair has affected his performance in office. While it can be argued that he disagrees with much of his constituency on many political issues, he won the election fair and square, and while he may have strayed from his bed and board in his private life, it doesn’t appear he’s often strayed from the principles he got elected on in his public life. There are questions about his paramour’s salary increases while she worked in Ensign’s office during the time of the affair. It has also been reported that Ensign used his influence to get his girlfriend’s husband work. But isn’t that why many people run for office in the first place? To have influence? Getting qualified people jobs who aren’t friends or family is politics at its most basic. Nepotism is another matter. If any of these things are an ethical problem, resignation should not be the penalty. They can, and should, be dealt with in the Senate’s normal ethics procedures.

The matter of the affair is between Sen. Ensign and his wife, Darlene. Early indications suggest the two have reconciled.

That’s where it should end. There have been so many of these types of sexual scandals that they have begun to fall on desensitized ears. And like Sen. David Vitter, the conservative Republican out of Louisiana who got caught up in the D.C. Madam net in 2007, it seems as long as Ensign stays on the straight and narrow, and there aren’t further ethical disclosures related to the affair, he’ll survive.

But he’s been hurt. Many have called his presidential aspirations toast, but other Republicans have made it through some pretty seedy affairs and haven’t lost credible shots at the top job. Newt Gingrich and John McCain come to mind. Ensign was always a long shot for the presidency, anyway.

Lest we think Nevadans are an unforgiving bunch, a poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal shows that even though he dropped in popularity immediately after his disclosure, he’s still more popular than Gov. Jim Gibbons or Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.

Nevadans may have lost something through the affair when Ensign stepped down as chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee. This is a small state, and leadership positions—particularly in policy-setting committees—give Nevadans greater influence.

But whether that setback to the state—or any other factors—should put Ensign on the street is still a decision voters should make in 2012.