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The upcoming federal elections will be an indicator of whether the failed coup d'etat against the White House hurt the Democrats or the Republicans more.

To be sure, the combination of President Clinton's foolishness and the Republican investigations knocked the Democrats back on their heels. But there is a chance that over the long term, it will cost the GOP the most.

The coup against Clinton died with a whimper Wednesday when Independent Counsel (a term that should be sandwiched by quotation marks) Robert W. Ray finally folded up shop on Whitewater.

In tortured language borrowed from the Scots, Ray said neither he nor predecessors Robert Fiske and Kenneth Starr could actually prove the president or his wife, who is now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, ever committed any crimes in connection with Whitewater, or even "knew of such conduct."

The formal term Ray used was that "the evidence was insufficient to prove to a grand jury beyond a reasonable doubt. . . ."

It was a whining, cheap shot that appeared designed more to appease the investigations' sponsors than to satisfy the Independent Counsel Law. His were the words of a sore loser.

In this country, you're innocent until proven guilty. Sen. Arlen Spector, R-Pa., in February 1999, tried applying Scottish law in the Clinton impeachment trial. Spector, desperately looking for a way out, said Clinton under the Scots criminal code could be voted innocent, guilty or charges not proven.

Ray would have looked less ridiculous donning a kilt, sporran and Balmoral and crying out, like a Scots jury foreman, "na provven," from the courthouse steps than handing up his twisted, six-page instrument of surrender.

It should be noted in this season that no more dedicated conservative Republican could have been picked to search out and imaginatively exploit a fatal weakness in the president than Starr.

A member of President Ronald Reagan's 1980 transition team, Starr won a coveted Reagan appointment to the federal appeals bench, then left to accept the second most important job in the Justice Department under President George Bush.

He served Bush three years as solicitor general. Eighteen months into Clinton's first term, Starr went to work on him.

As grand inquisitor, Starr became a Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy in a powdered wig. Starr gradually traded in his reputation for pious meticulousness and affability to mount a series of the most questionable practices ever seen in a major federal probe.

Starr gathered evidence using the FBI to make stomach-churning threats to witnesses, and employed secretly recorded private telephone conversations.

Starr's office became an engine of punishing leaks about secret grand jury proceedings. In a secret Star Chamber session of federal court, he arranged to release to the public raw prurient testimony that should have been sealed.

Not satisfied to publicly ply X-rated references to cigars in September 1998, Starr even set up a peep show, like an adult movie stand, in a guarded room where Congressmen and their staffs could get their fill of more choice prosecutorial filth.

So Starr's riveting disclosures became the centripetal force for all Republicans, and the mother of all the GOP probes into the secretaries of Labor, Commerce, Treasury, Interior, Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development, and a dead White House counsel named Vincent Foster.

In the process, House Republican moderates like Chris Shays of Connecticut, Jim Leach of Iowa and Tom Campbell of California, who wanted to deal seriously with such issues as the environment, privacy and campaign finance reform, lost what little leverage they had in the party.

Amo Houghton of Corning, Jack Quinn of Hamburg, Charles Norwood of Georgia and other GOP moderates had a vision on how to deal in a progressive but measured way with problems in health insurance, Medicare and Social Security.

But these members clinging to the center were compromised, disarmed in the general swoon of revelations. And the positions of hard-liners such as House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas and others who yearned to dismantle what they call the "central government" -- language dating from Reconstruction -- were solidified.

The elections of 1994 had given Republicans their first opportunity to become a governing party since 1952. It would be hard work. It meant forging long-term solutions to the nation's problems that workaday Americans would readily understand and like. The effort required sane debate and respectful compromise among all branches of the GOP.

But too much of the party became distracted in the rush to investigate and, sad to say, destroy. And the grunt work of hammering out broad-based, constructive programs just didn't get done. Instead of offering details, the party this year seems limited to chanting, "trust me, because you can't trust the other guy."

In their failed drive to even the score, Republicans blew an opportunity that they may not see again for a long time.

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