WASHINGTON — When you Google the phrase “unconstitutional third term,” you get references to a rogue’s gallery of strongman leaders — Vladimir Putin, Alberto Fujimori, Olusegun Obasanjo, Islam Karimov, Hugo Chavez — who in recent years at least have flirted with the idea of holding on to power beyond statutory limits. Now the name Bill Clinton pops up, too.

It may be unfair to Hillary Clinton, but the prospect of her husband’s return to the White House — albeit not as president, but as prince consort, which would not actually violate the Constitution — has inevitably become a campaign issue, and it’s beginning to work against her.

A new Pew Research Center poll found voters evenly divided, with 41 percent saying they “like” the idea of Bill Clinton coming back to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and 41 percent saying they “dislike” the notion. When Pew asked the same question last October, 43 percent said they liked the idea and only 34 percent disliked it.

Democrats are generally amenable to Bill Clinton’s return, as they were four months ago. Republicans, unsurprisingly, are increasingly opposed. But the most significant change of opinion since October has come among independents, whose view has flipped from positive to negative — a finding that all but screams to the eventual Republican nominee: “Push this button. Hard.”

Not that Bill hasn’t been doing a thorough job of pushing it himself. His high-profile role in his wife’s campaign — deemed necessary to confront the Barack Obama rebellion — has invited voters to recall the accomplishments of the Clinton years, but also the debacles. And the way he sought not just to deliver but to control the campaign’s message raises the question of what his role would be in a crisis if Hillary Clinton were to become president.

That’s the unfair part — mostly unfair, at least. There’s no way that Hillary Clinton would go to the considerable trouble of running for president in order to let her husband make the decisions, as if the Clinton marriage were out of a 1950s sitcom. Hillary has her people — longtime friends, supporters, aides — just as Bill has his. If she made it to the White House, her people would be the ones with real power; if his people didn’t like it, there wouldn’t be much they could do but grumble.

But Hillary Clinton opens the door to all the questions and suspicions about Bill’s role. Has she made a single campaign appearance without claiming that “for 35 years” she’s been fighting for this, that or the other?

When she tries to portray herself as a battle-scarred political veteran and Obama as an ingénue, she counts the years she spent as first lady in Little Rock and Washington. When she adds the policy successes of the 1990s (but not the failures) to her resume, she implies that she was part of a co-presidency. It’s legitimate to ask whether she intends to be part of another.

Bill, meanwhile, has done little to dispel the impression that he’s itching to make a comeback. Until recently, his campaign appearances were almost self-parody; he talked almost exclusively about himself, mentioning Hillary as an apparent afterthought. At the moment, he’s sticking much closer to his script. But as we saw in South Carolina, with his heedless romp through the minefield of race, Bill Clinton is a hard man to keep on message.

Questions about Hillary’s role in the Clinton administration, and about Bill’s business and philanthropic ventures since he left office, are not just fair but necessary.

Why won’t the Clintons speed up the release of White House papers that would let us see what kind of authority Hillary Clinton enjoyed? Who donated how much to the Clinton presidential library, and might those donors expect anything from a Hillary Clinton administration? What business tycoons have snuggled up to the former president, and what — other than the chance to bask in the radiance of his wit — did they hope to get out of the exercise?

Would Bill return to his foundation and its high-profile international projects? If so, would that work be coordinated with Hillary’s foreign policy? Could donors be sure that the foundation’s priorities were still being set independently, in accord with what they were told when they wrote the check?

It’s natural to ask whether Bill Clinton is grasping at the chance for an Act II of his presidency to redeem the Clinton name from the impeachment scandal. It’s also natural to ask whether he’s capable of playing second fiddle to anyone, even his wife.

Hillary Clinton had to know she was bringing this baggage along when she boarded the train. She’ll be stuck with it the rest of the way.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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