Interior Secretary Watt's own unguarded tongue has triggered forces that should lead to resignation. His latest remark - referring to members of a coal-leasing commission as ''a black . . . a woman . . . two Jews and a cripple'' - reflects a chronic habit of derision for which he has had to apologize before.
Mr. Reagan has long shown forbearance with his staff when they have gotten into trouble or have made mistakes. No doubt he gains, overall, in showing loyalty to his troops instead of cutting every personnel liability at the first sign of trouble.
The pro-Watt case made in Washington now is that Republicans will be better off if he stays than if he goes. Keeping him is throwing a bone to the conservatives, as it is calculatingly put. If Watt leaves the cabinet, the focus of reaction against the administration's environmental policy moves from Watt to the President. Environmentalists upset with Watt on policy matters won't vote for Mr. Reagan anyway, it is argued. So it is better for the White House to let Watt be the lightening rod.
The Republican leadership's concern with conservative unrest appears genuine. Reagan decisions like tolerating big deficits trouble conservatives. They wanted a more robust, punitive response to the KAL Flight 7 downing. Much of the White House's thrust since early this year - on social issues, Central America, presidential travel to conservative bastions - has been aimed at shoring up Mr. Reagan's conservative base.
The presumption was that if Mr. Reagan runs again, he would begin to move toward the center - after the fall's budget battles were over, the missile emplacement in Europe underway, and the tough-words phase of arms negotiation possibly behind.
As a practical matter, according to White House sources, Watt's fate hangs on public response.
Mr. Watt is a potent fundraiser, GOP officials emphasize - for both the GOP and the opposition sides.
Out of the cabinet, he would still be useful to his partisans. But the opposition would be deprived of their easiest rallying target. Many powerful Republicans on Capitol Hill have asked for his ouster. So his status has gone beyond a mere partisan matter.
The higher issue, however, lies above Washington political considerations.
Mr. Watt represents the President when he speaks as a member of the cabinet.
He represents the government. He represents the people.
To offend whole classes of Americans - Indians, pop culture followers of the Beach Boys, Jews, or the disabled - offends Americans as a whole. A typical Wattism, attributing Indian reservation unemployment, social disease, and drug abuse to ''socialism,'' showed an unwitting habit of tarring an entire member group of the American culture with indignity. There may be a place for campaign-trail rough and tumble. But not for repeated incivil remarks.
The public needs in officials a speaking and thinking style that heals and bridges the sense of division, mistreatment, and distrust rooted in the past. Cabinet members should reflect the mission of representing all the people - a characteristic of those presidents history labels great.
When Mr. Reagan did not shake up his cabinet after last year's election, many analysts took this as a sign he might not run again. Keeping Mr. Watt could be another such signal. Either way, the White House must decide how many written and public apologies from Mr. Watt the President must endure before he must say enough.