WASHINGTON -- What timing! Just when the Republicans were starting to blow their hot air on the embers of Sexgate, a George Bush appointee swiped the coals. Judge Susan Webber Wright's decision to trash Paula Jones' lawsuit seriously undermines the main threat to President Clinton -- the Kenneth Starr investigation -- and leaves House Republicans with the most dire of prospects: They might have to look once again into Whitewater. That can only stir one response in Republican offices: ugh!
In recent weeks, Republicans have voiced frustration that the sex-and-lying allegations against Clinton were not by themselves bringing down their nemesis. Clinton's rising approval rating made the sting worse. "I feel like Bob Dole in 1996," grumbled Kate O'Beirne, Washington editor of the National Review. "Where's the outrage?"
So a few Republicans decided to give the story a push. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, spoke out loudly. Hatch, in a long Sunday New York Times op-ed piece, expressed support for Starr's work and compared the White House to O.J. Simpson's defense team. DeLay, the third-ranking Republican in the House, decried a morally deficient president. Meanwhile, the House leadership openly deliberated how to handle a possible impeachment, when it could have adopted a wait-and-see position. Various Republican presidential wannabes, including Dan Quayle and Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., increased the volume of their anti-Clinton invective.
All in all, the Republicans were on the move, bolstering Starr and, once again, trying to press what they euphemistically call the "character issue." Hatch's past support of the criminal BCCI bank and DeLay's alleged extortion of campaign funds, as reported by the Washington Post, apparently do not reflect "character." And their best ammunition was Starr's revived inquiry -- not the Whitewater end, but the Monica Lewinsky business. After all, it was hard to make a federal case out of the weak Jones suit, and Whitewater is old and convoluted news. But an investigation into whether the president lied in his own deposition and suborned perjury in relation to Lewinsky's deposition in the Jones case -- that certainly gave ground for congressional intrusion. Those who have repeated ad nauseam, "It's not the sex; it's the lying," had a point.
But if the Jones case no longer exists, it becomes much more difficult for Starr to justify that part of his investigation, even if, technically, a perjury charge could still be pursued. As legal experts debate the point -- even Starr's deputy, Jackie Bennett, had to acknowledge that case law is divided on this matter -- Starr is sticking to his crusade. But from a political perspective, it is hard to imagine Starr passing to the House material related to the discredited Jones case that can be embraced by the Republicans as impeachment-worthy. While one may not want to get into the business of measuring the venality of the lies told by presidents and their interns (yes, all lying is horrid), it is not unreasonable to suggest that an independent counsel should not be investigating prevarications of marginal relevance. Otherwise, Washington would have the vacancy rate of East St. Louis.
Which leaves us -- or them -- with the leftovers of Whitewater. Starr is still poking into all those long-ago business deals. Might his report to the House, then, center on Whitewater matters? Newt Gingrich cannot be eager to rerun the Whitewater hearings, which proved so deleterious to the political health of Sen. Alfonse D'Amato when he presided over the Senate Whitewater hearings two years ago. Now, at the end of Ken Starr's very long day, all the Republicans may be left with is ... David Hale, the defrocked judge whose accusations against Clinton have been undermined by Salon's stories that he received payments from the same conservative funders who bankroll the right wing's anti-Clinton machine.
Few Republicans can be happy about this. Specter said Thursday that impeachment proceedings shouldn't even be considered unless there is an "open-and-shut case" against the president. Perhaps there will be a burst of GOP resentment against Starr, who has it much easier than GOP legislators. Starr, unlike most prosecutors, does not have to prove his case -- which is very far from open and shut -- since he has passed the buck for indicting a sitting president to Congress. Rather than stand the rigors of obtaining a conviction, Starr can blithely dump his findings into the laps of Gingrich and Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. What an escape clause.
With the Jones case smothered, the most useful part of Starr's crusade from a Republican point of view may well be rendered moot, at least politically. For those who were hoping that dirt would do in Clinton, there is no joy in Mudville.