No, not the way she might have an impact on down-ticket races or how she might mobilize women voters. Instead, I mean what she’s already doing to the discourse, at least based on one admittedly idiosyncratic data point.

I started reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog about five years ago. At least I think it was five years ago. I know that he was in the process of renouncing his pro-Bush line, though he retained his vestigal anti-Muslim streak and a related tendency to defend Christopher Hitchens (“Hitch,” to Sullivan). Sullivan was then an interesting read for me: genuinely conservative on many issues, especially as related to the size of government, and thus just beginning to rail about the tyranny of the Bush White House — as opposed to his previous rants about the tyranny of the liberal establishment. Sullivan became, over time, saner and saner — in my view, at least — as he became more and more anti-Bush, though he retained an odd edge. The Iraq debacle outraged him, the Katrina fiasco made him scream, and horror against the institutionalization of torture became his signature issue. I have to admit that I thought him right often enough and interesting even more consistently than that.

As a result, I couldn’t quite fathom why two Erics that I respect, my co-blooger, Rauchway, and Alterman, who refers to Sullivan as Little Roy Cohn (that’s nasty stuff, I think, no matter how you slice it) despise him so much. But then Hillary Clinton began actively campaigning for the presidency, and the wheels came off my personal Andrew Sullivan bandwagon. The man has gone insane lately, reverting to taking cheap shots at liberals and spewing racial pseudoscience that would make Samuel Cartwright and Josiah Nott proud. I’ve deleted Sullivan from my bookmarked blogs, and I won’t ever link to him again. That’s a promise.

For about twelve seconds this morning I considered what had happened to Sullivan. Then I decided that I didn’t really care. But after that it occurred to me that this is what we have to look forward to if HRC becomes the Democratic nominee. Many conservatives, driven to the center (or closer to sanity, if one is honest), by President Bush’s excesses will lose their minds anew, returning to the fold of social darwinists, warmongers, bigots, and tax-cutting fatcats from whence they came. The Clinton family has that effect on people, drawing out powerful and irrational loathing nearly as often as not. Polls have shown this to be the case.

I have to say that I don’t relish having a front-row seat as this particular drama unfolds. I’m a big fan of partisanship. But I can live without seeing personal hatred on display in the public sphere. Still, watching Andrew Sullivan scuttle back to the lunatic fringe has made me more not less sympathetic to Hlilary. In the same way that the terrorists win if I don’t fly the major airlines or go shopping the day after Thanksgiving, I think the Andrew Sullivans of the world, small bullies all, will win if I don’t at least spend a moment defending HRC’s candidacy. I may not like her very much; but that’s very different from hating her.