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Whether the politicians like it or not — and they’re leery in both parties — unless a swifter than expected resolution is devised or the schedule changes, this November’s election is shaping up to be a something of a referendum on whether Bill Clinton should be impeached. It will take more dramatic shifts in public opinion for the outcome to be decisive immediately, but one of the things in voters’ minds as they decide on congressional candidates is bound to be whether Candidate X or Challenger Y is more likely to vote for impeachment when and if the matter comes up.

Given the congressional Republicans’ retreat on the issues — is an $80-billion tax cut over five years when the surplus is projected to be $1 billion or more over the same period really supposed to give us goose bumps? — impeachment might be the only issue with the potential to “nationalize” the election and give national tea leaf readers something from which to draw significance in November. To say this is not to predict how it is likely to go. For an impeachment move to have much credibility it cannot arise simply from electing more Republicans. It has to become enough of an issue that a significant number of Democrats at least send out signals between the lines that they would be willing to pursue an impeachment inquiry.

I think we should have impeached a president every 20 years or so just to keep them from getting too cocky, but we haven’t. Consequently impeachment, especially of a president, is viewed as a grave and solemn matter in American politics. Unless cumulative disgust takes hold more forcefully, my guess now would be that a large enough segment of the American people is not ready to impeach Mr. Clinton to make it happen. But that could change, and it could change quickly.

If impeachment does become a live campaign issue, it would be healthy if discussion extended beyond the kind of legalistic infractions stressed by the Starr Report. The constitutional term “high crimes and misdemeanors” is a political term of art meaning in essence that the occupant of an office has simply done too much to destroy the bond of trust between the people and a leader for the people to endure him any longer. Felonies under the law are not required to meet the standard; indeed, it could be argued that looking the American people in the eye, wagging one’s finger and deliberately lying about “that woman” — which is not illegal and shouldn’t be — constitutes more of an impeachable offense than perjury barely proven.

Whether Mr. Starr issues supplementary reports on the matters or not, therefore, offenses against political comity like Whitewater and subsequent coverups, Troopergate, the inadequate (if not criminal) investigation into the death of Vincent Foster, the 900 FBI files, the travel office outrage, the issuance of Executive Orders to grab power and implement policies Congress refuses to enact through the legislative process, the overall pattern of lying when the truth would be more palatable and a hundred other Clinton transgressions all merit vigorous discussion during the campaign. Impeachment is the proper constitutional punishment for abuse of power and of the privileges of office. Many of us believe that Clinton has done so to an extent deserving of the severest punishment, but a consensus has not yet emerged.

A consensus can only emerge if the abuses are raised in the public square and discussed more thoroughly than they have been to date. If the consensus, finally, is that the abuses do not merit impeachment, fine. But an intelligent discussion of the matter should go well beyond the narrow question of whether provable felonies have been committed.

It would also be helpful if the national discussion included a less sentimental and dewy-eyed consideration of the role of Hillary Clinton, who has been treated of late as the innocent, noble victim in all this but may more accurately be viewed as the Lady Macbeth of the piece.

The press has concentrated on Hillary’s body language as the couple climb onto helicopters or jets, musing on the pain and shock that all these unseemly details have no doubt caused to an innocent and injured spouse, marveling that she can appear at public events with such aplomb, occasionally wondering just how sincere she is in her current “stand by your man” mode.

Please.

If anything can be gleaned from the relatively serious biographical works and magazine articles on the world’s premier power couple, it is that Hillary is the senior partner. Bill has been the performer, the front man, the showman, while Hillary is the organizer, the driven political ideologue who sought power relentlessly with serious purposes. She was the one who screwed up his courage to make the run for the presidency in 1992 and participated in the “60 Minutes” charade when the issue was Gennifer Flowers. She made her bargain with Bill Clinton long ago, trading the normal benefits of marriage for the opportunity to exercise power both behind the scenes and in her own right. If anything, Mr. Clinton’s peccadilloes gave her more power, because her willingness to play the wronged but understanding spouse was an essential key to keeping the show running.

All this became obvious — too obvious to make most Americans and even much of the courtier press comfortable — during the first two years of the Clinton presidency, when Hillary presided over a task force charged with socializing health care in the United States. It was all too much even for a Congress which was at the time controlled by the Democrats and contributed to the Democrats losing their majority in 1994. Thereafter she retreated into the ceremonial role of First Lady and worked her way back into the esteem of at least the professional political class.

Hillary may well not have known all the details surrounding “l’Affaire Lewinsky” before the Starr report and accompanying documentation, but to imagine that she was completely in the dark and shocked that her loving husband could have behaved in such a fashion is simply beyond belief.

All this does not rule out the possibility that the Clintons have some genuine affection for one another. But this is clearly a marriage with the earmarks of a political partnership.

To top it off, Hillary, as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has been reminding readers of the London Telegraph and those who access it on the Web, could be facing legal problems of her own at least as serious as those that face the president. The statute of limitations for corruption charges surrounding the miraculous $100,000 profits in commodities and the original Whitewater deal has passed. But if Mrs. Clinton lied under oath or obstructed justice regarding her $2,000-a-month retainer from Madison Guaranty or the “series of flips and fictitious sales” (as federal regulators put it) surrounding the Castle Grande real estate deal, she could face legal liability.

Hillary is also a central figure in two other scandals still under investigation. There are strong indications that Craig Livingstone, who ordered the 900 FBI files delivered to the White House in the Filegate matter, was hired at her behest. Former Clinton administrative chieftain David Watkins has suggested strongly that Travelgate, in which seven employees were fired and unjustly accused of corruption in a caper that involved misuse of the FBI for political purposes, was undertaken at her command.

Whether or not Hillary ever faces legal liability for these scandals, people should be reminded that the image of the innocent, injured yet ultimately understanding and forgiving spouse of a wayward yet charming rogue is hardly the whole picture.

If the polls are to be believed, the American people have been amazingly tolerant of the ways the First Couple has used and abused power, of the process of converting the White House into a miasma of political and personal misbehavior. Whether they will continue to be so tolerant or whether cumulative disgust will set in and be expressed at the polls in November is the tale still to be told. It is utterly appropriate for the people to have a larger role in this process of judging than the political class or the press is inclined to grant us.

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