By raising a ruckus, the Republicans are sending a clear signal to all the future Craig Livingstones and Anthony Marsecas: Don't you ever, ever mess around with FBI files. Don't ever pretend that this is anything but deadly serious. If you do, you'll get into a heap of trouble.
And there's one more point on the Republicans' side: The watchdog role they are playing is exactly why we have a competitive party system. The party on the outs is supposed to keep a watchful eye on the party of the ins. Constitutional liberties are not self-enforcing. Often, they have to be enforced by an adversarial process in which someone cries foul. So two cheers to the Republicans for doing their job.
Now, here's the other view: The Republicans are in danger of blowing a really good hand. They have become so accustomed to puffing up every little fact and rumor about the Clinton administration into some huge scandal (usually including the words ``water'' or ``gate'') that they have forgotten the basic rule of scandal politics: When the facts are on your side, be judicious. Don't make up wild charges, don't be mean, don't leap to conclusions. Let the story unfold.
The Republicans just can't control themselves. Some of them seem to make a living out of trying to prove that every act by every Democratic president and every Democratic aide is exactly like every act of Richard Nixon and all of his men.
After a while, the legitimate charges blur into the wildly irresponsible inventions. No wonder Clinton's popularity holds up in the face of the various scandal stories. After a while, you assume that at least half of the bad things said about Mr. and Mrs. Clinton are partisan bunk.
The Republicans (and, it should be said, Rep. Tom Lantos, a Democrat) also did what one might have imagined was impossible: They invoked our sympathy for Craig Livingstone.
Lantos said that Livingstone was right to resign his job. But that wasn't good enough. Lantos noted, with unbelievably bad taste, that Adm. Mike Boorda ``committed suicide when he may have committed a minor mistake.'' What, exactly, did Lantos think he was telling poor Livingstone to do?
It's perfectly fair for the Republicans to investigate whether the activities of Livingston and Marceca had direction from higher up. The administration has fed suspicions by putting out, at best, less than complete information. But the Republicans hurt their own cause when they lash out first and ask questions later.
And former White House Counsel Bernie Nussbaum scored a clear hit when he demanded an apology from Rep. Bill Clinger (R., Pa.). Clinger had accused Nussbaum of being ``at best unethical and at worst a felon.'' On the basis of exactly what? Nussbaum scored simply by pointing out that Clinger, normally a most civilized man, is no Sam Ervin.
Maybe the Republicans already know that they won't get the goods on Clinton in this particular caper. So they are filling the airwaves with nasty rhetoric in the hope that something - anything - will bring the President down in the polls.
If that's the way the Republicans want to play it, nobody is going to stop them. They're still doing the country a favor by acting in a way that will make this sort of thing less likely in the future. But they could earn our respect if, one time at least, they stopped trying to prove that Clinton is Satan himself and followed Joe Friday's rule of just pursuing the facts.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is based at the Washington Post.