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Why Kirsten Gillibrand saying that Bill Clinton should’ve resigned is a big deal

President Bill Clinton helped campaign for Democratic Senate candidate Kristen Gillibrand in October 2006. (Jim McKnight/AP)

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Thursday went to a place that few Democrats have dared or cared to go when it comes to allegations of sexual assault: Calling out Bill Clinton.

From the New York Times:

Asked directly if she believed Mr. Clinton should have stepped down [when he faced his own allegations as president], Ms. Gillibrand took a long pause and said, “Yes, I think that is the appropriate response.”

That long pause suggests this was not something that the senator from New York said lightly, nor that she necessarily planned on saying. Yet here we are.

It's difficult to overstate the potential significance of Gillibrand's response to the question about the former president. While the comments might have been somewhat buried in a day of multiple huge news stories — sexual assault allegations against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), the Roy Moore saga, Robert Menendez's mistrial and the passage of the House GOP tax bill — it could reverberate for years for Gillibrand and possibly for longer for the Clintons.

In one respect, it's not so surprising that Gillibrand would go there on Bill Clinton. She's been perhaps the Senate's most vocal member on sexual assault. But in another respect, it's a highly unexpected and fraught move.

Gillibrand just so happens to come from the state where Hillary Clinton served in the Senate, and she was appointed to Clinton's old seat before winning it in her own right. She is also thought to have aspirations of running for president in 2020. This stance would seem to have the dual effect of distinguishing her on a very important issue in that race, but also of potentially alienating the many well-heeled and influential supporters and donors she has in common with the Clintons.

At least one former top Hillary Clinton aide sent a warning shot Gillibrand's way Thursday night. Philippe Reines's tweet downplayed the allegations against Bill Clinton and suggested that Gillibrand was a hypocritical ingrate. He also ominously pointed to the 2020 presidential race — a not-so-veiled warning that Gillibrand just alienated the wrong people.

“Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons' endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite,” he wrote. “Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.”

Which brings us to what this means for Bill Clinton. Reines is not exactly known for understating things, but his guns-a-blazing response to Gillibrand's comments is in one way completely understandable. Here we have a leading potential 2020 contender raising the issue of whether a popular former president should have resigned in the face of sexual misconduct allegations.

The coverage of assault allegations against Republican candidate Roy Moore and Bill Clinton is a moment of reckoning for Republicans and Democrats (Video: Victoria Walker, Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

That may seem like some revisionist history — a trivial bit of 20/20 hindsight on Gillibrand's part — but it has massive implications for the Clintons' legacy. Suddenly, other Democrats will be asked whether they agree with Gillibrand's comments that the former president should have resigned. If those Democrats are 2020 hopefuls, they'll be wary of letting Gillibrand keep the spotlight on this issue. If they're Democrats more broadly, they'll be conscious of looking like they're giving Bill Clinton a pass on the allegations against him even as they say that  accusers should be believed. At this particular moment in time, giving life to a debate over Clinton's alleged sexual misconduct alongside all the others could lead just about anywhere.

If a reasonably large number of Democrats decide to rewrite their view of Clinton's legacy as one that should have ended in disgrace, that turns Clinton from a statesman into something closer to what many Republicans have long alleged.

It may never come to that, especially if other Democrats don't join in Gillibrand's statements about Clinton. But in one fell swoop, she put that debate squarely on the table. And you can bet the Clintons are apoplectic about that right now — especially considering the source.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said Nov. 15 that “there is a serious sexual harassment problem in Congress.” (Video: Reuters)