WASHINGTON. — In public, nobody in either party is chortling over what has happened in the Clarence Thomas case. Some Republicans are furious, or perhaps pretending to be furious because they are nervous. But most Democrats are wearing stern, judicial faces, as if politics were not involved.
In private, of course, even before senators decide who is telling the truth in the Thomas affair, both sides are trying to decide how it will affect their electoral chances next year. Who wins and loses politically is not simply a matter of whether Mr. Thomas is confirmed or not.
On the face of it, his confirmation would seem to justify President Bush's faith in his nominee -- as demonstrated by Wednesday's photo-op with him at the White House -- and be a plus for the GOP. A rejection would work the other way.
But barring more bombshells, the political results will not be that clear-cut. Before Judge Thomas and Professor Anita Hill face off, the prospect is that senators are going to see what they want to see, and believe whom they want to believe, and the confirmation vote will be still be close.
In that case, the main impact of the Thomas controversy will have been to raise the nation's consciousness about sexual harassment and how seriously women take it. Senatorial consciousness was raised in a spectacular way in the hours between disclosure of Ms. Hill's charges and the decision to postpone a final vote on Judge Thomas.
The idea that the wholly male Judiciary Committee had known about the allegations but proceeded without delay, then that the mostly male Senate was about to vote up or down without further inquiry, infuriated millions of women. It also seemed to millions of men to fall considerably short of diligence.
Ron Brown, Democratic national chairman, maintains that the whole ruckus merely calls attention to which party has championed women's issues and which has given the back of its hand to their appeals. In that comparison, he says, the Democrats obviously come out best.
''The political implications of this can only be negative for the Republicans,'' he says. ''They have been wrong on a lot of issues'' like child care and parental leave.
But wait -- if women are mad at Congress, won't that hurt the Democrats? They are, after all, a majority at the Capitol. Mr. Brown insists that ''when a party is already perceived as less than sensitive, it hurts them more. You can't take people's view of an institution and transfer that to individuals'' running for re-election. If there is any advantage to the Democrats, ''we've earned it,'' he says. But he thinks Democrats have not done enough to emphasize the contrast between the parties' records.
His logic might be leak-proof if this were the only current flap over how Congress works and plays. But day after day, there have been disclosures about bouncing personal checks at the congressional bank, unpaid bills at congressional restaurants, congressional fixing of parking tickets, and other dirty little secrets that seem outrageous to voters beyond the beltway.
Mr. Brown himself concedes that those peccadilloes ''sure don't help'' when the debate turns to term-limit efforts like those endorsed by the GOP -- the minority is willing to toss out all incumbents and start from scratch. And while the term-limit movement is promoted by Republicans, it is fed by broader public unhappiness, as when California voters narrowly approved such limits last year.
The movement is a state-level continuation of the public-relations contest in which Democrats blame the White House for all that's wrong, and Republicans blame Congress. The Thomas controversy is an extension of that warfare, and a test of whether the acclaimed gender gap between parties will widen as women's issues are dramatized.
Recent Democratic presidential candidates have done better among women voters than among men -- but have lost, because Republicans do better with men. White men, that is. If the Thomas case rouses feminists to battle, will their militancy turn off white men, creating a still wider gender gap?
Mr. Brown, determined to see the bright side, contends that ''a lot of men have become increasingly sensitive to these issues. I don't think there's going to be any backlash.''
If the households of most white males reverberated as mine did this week, and as those of many senators obviously did, the Democratic chairman is right. For most reformed male chauvinist pigs, consciousness-raising is a gradual process until some specific incident brings it home. The Thomas mess is such an incident, on a national scale. Politicians who proceed with business as usual afterward will do so at their peril.