Rarely in the annals of double-think has a party distinguished itself as has the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton. First, they insisted that the House complete its impeachment inquiry on President Clinton by the end of 1998. Then, when the Republicans did exactly that, the Democrats claimed the House's impeachment to be illegitimate because it was passed by the lame-duck 105th whose term expired with 1998.

Then the Democrats waxed eloquent about how House Republicans had created a travesty of impeachment by calling no first-hand witnesses and relying on Ken Starr's written record. Now the Democrats wax eloquent about how Senate Republicans would create a travesty of impeachment by calling witnesses and not relying on Ken Starr's written record.(Of course Republicans, too, pulled off a nice little flip on the issue: no witnesses in the House, a demand for witnesses in the Senate. But at least the Republican flip carried a modicum of logic. Because the House impeaching is analogous to a grand jury indicting, the House could reasonably justify relying on the grand jury testimony already taken. The Senate trial, however, is analogous to a criminal trial. And in criminal trials, grand jury testimony is not deemed sufficient. Witnesses are called.)

It is most delightful to watch the Democrats trying to make a straight-faced argument that the Senate trial of the president of the United States must prohibit witnesses. When it is pointed out that it is customary in the United States -- as it is in Mongolia and was in Sumeria -- to call witnesses in a trial, the Democrats protest that this is not a real trial.

Of course at the same time, Democrats level constant complaints about Republican unfairness on procedure, denying the president the right to -- pick one -- (a) due process, (b) adequate examination of the evidence against him, (c) forewarning about the trial's procedures, (d) a speedy trial. But these rights -- allegedly violated -- are the rights of a defendant in a trial, which the Democrats simultaneously deny that this is.

The denial is fatuous. The Constitution has very little to say about impeachment procedure, but it is absolutely unequivocal in calling what happens in the Senate a trial.

The idea that there is some principle involved in not calling witnesses is simply ridiculous. All this wordplay, which aspires but does not quite rise to Clintonian proportions, is in the service of fear. Even though there are not now 67 votes to convict the president, the Democrats are afraid that witnesses might yet again change the dynamic of a story whose dynamic has already changed unpredictably a half-dozen times.

And finally, my personal favorite. Democrats say no witnesses should be called because it would result in a long, drawn-out trial that would prevent the Senate from going -- in the immortal words of their leader when he wagged his finger and lied about "that woman" -- "back to work for the American people." Then in the next breath, the White House warns that if the Republicans dare call one witness they will loose a procedural avalanche, tying up the Senate til doomsday. So much for the business of the American people.

Given the absurdity of the Democrats' logic, it is remarkable how reluctant the Republicans are to frontally take on the Democrats on the witnesses issue. Yes, Republicans are gun-shy, having suffered in public opinion for every procedural victory in the House. But those procedural victories were pointless. Had House Republicans agreed to the Democratic conditions on time and subject limits (which Republicans adhered to anyway), they would have had unanimous House backing for their impeachment inquiry and thus insulated themselves from charges of partisanship.

The Senate 100-0 love-in on procedure punted on the question of witnesses. It was a clever temporizing ploy. But if, when the time comes, Republicans do not have the gumption to seize the witness issue for fear of losing their majority, they don't deserve to have a majority.

The Democrats did have the moral high ground in protesting the airing of Clinton's grand jury testimony. But they have the lowest of the low ground in calling for a trial without witnesses. It is a position entirely without principle or logic.

If the Republicans cannot make a principled case for a few witnesses under circumscribed questioning, they should throw in the towel now and spare us the pretense of a trial.

Washington Post Writers Group