Witnesses: GOP toys with electoral disaster

Remember the 100-to-0 senate vote on the impeachment proceedings and all those bipartisan good vibes flowing from the Capitol two Friday's ago?

Take those memories and savor them. If you have a photo from the smiles-all-around press conference that followed the vote, put it somewhere for safe keeping. Because any hope of cutting the Senate impeachment trial short is a distant memory now. We are in for the long haul. You can bet witnesses will be called. Tempers will flare. And partisanship will continue to rise for another six to eight weeks.

But more important, regardless of what happens on the Senate floor, the true denouement of the whole ugly affair probably won't be felt until the election of 2000 - and it's not going to be a happy ending for some folks in this city.

Of course, the importance of that 100-to-0 bipartisan vote was overstated from the beginning. Far from settling anything, it just laid out the procedure that would be used to determine whether witnesses would be called. And now it seems pretty clear that when that procedure is set in motion, the result will be at least be a few, possibly many, witnesses on the Senate floor.

House managers believe this is the best way to win over the votes they need.

Right now, the 67-vote target seems a million miles away.

In their opening arguments they pointed out two principal reasons to call witnesses. They said that calling witnesses would give the senators a chance to judge the truthfulness of the witnesses for themselves. Furthermore, they said, it would allow them the opportunity to personally cross-examine the parties involved.

But how likely is either of those things? The idea that the senators, or anyone else for that matter, can tell when someone is telling the truth by watching them closely is a dubious one. (Anyone who has seen President Clinton in action should know that by now.) And it is difficult to believe that witnesses will produce revelations that will alter senators' opinions on the case. After all, Kenneth Starr has already produced boxes of information from his eight months of investigation.

So why call the witnesses? There are two potential reasons and neither will lead to a sunny 2000 for incumbents.

One possibility is that anti-Clintonites want to draw the trial out and dredge up past allegations against Mr. Clinton in the hopes of swaying the public.

House managers have already talked about calling other "Jane Does," and the House leadership has been peddling old stories about Clinton for the past month. This would be a risky strategy for the GOP and for their nominee, whoever he or she is in 2000. If Republicans use the trial as a means of getting into the president's personal history, they risk losing the American electorate.

People already don't like Clinton, that's not the issue. Bringing up more moral shortcomings now is beating a dead horse.

The other possible reason to call witnesses, the one that everyone is already citing, is that the Senate believes its constitutional duty of having a trial means having live testimony from the main characters.

Clearly this reason has a high-minded ring. It is certainly driven by a more noble impulse. And if the upper chamber can manage to keep the proceedings out of the gutter, it may be able to show evenhanded justice was the goal.

But come 2000, will anyone care why the trial was so long? A long trial, nice or nasty, will likely only leave voters in a surly mood. Their sense of the trial will be a series of fleeting images; Monica Lewinsky morphing into Linda Tripp turning into Vernon Jordan.

While the Senate argues over who is telling the truth, the American people will shrug. The facts are not at issue for them. They believe the president had an affair and that he perjured himself to cover it up. They have decided it is not serious enough to remove the man from office and they are surprised no one in Washington has figured this out.

Of course, many people here are banking on the famously short American attention span to forget this whole sordid mess by 2000, regardless of the outcome. But I wouldn't be so sure. This city has earned a reputation for underrating the disdain of the people it represents.

And that contempt is only going to rise after this trial if witnesses are called.

After all, thinking that what goes on in Washington is a dog-and-pony show is one thing. Being forced to watch it is another.

Dante Chinni, a Washington-based freelance journalist, is a contributor to The New Republic and Capital Style magazine.

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