Perhaps. It’s probably too soon to tell for sure. Still, bear with me while I explain.

We’ve talked before about the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, so I won’t bore you with details. But, just in case you don’t feel like clicking the link, I’ll refresh your memory: in 1854, Congress granted Kansas and Nebraska territorial status and placed them on a fast track to statehood. The territories’ citizens would decide the fate of slavery in each, “popular sovereignty” said Stephen Douglas, the act’s sponsor.

So what does this have to do with Richard Mellon Scaife? That’s a fair question. For the past few days, I’ve been fiddling around with a post titled, “D.W. Griffith Democrats.” The gist of which was that Hillary Clinton and her proxies, by refusing to stop beating the Jeremiah Wright drum (see here, here, and here), run the risk of alienating African-Americans, the Democratic Party’s most loyal voting bloc. I was going to suggest that the Clinton campaign has looked a bit like it’s being run by, and pandering to, people like the filmmaker D.W. Griffith: progressive in some cases, but, in the end, paralyzed by racial anxiety. Or, more accurately, willing to trade in what used to be called, in polite circles, Negrophobia to make a sale.

But then I thought better of what I was writing. There were at least three main reasons why. First, I decided that I was wrong. Or at least not right enough, because the Clinton campaign hadn’t been so overtly racist that allegations like the ones I was considering making in my post were warranted. Second, Senator Obama’s recent speech, prompted by Reverend Wright’s comments, suggested that Democrats should lower the temperature of the current debate about race in the context of the primary campaign. And third, given that I have no idea how Hillary Clinton actually feels about black people, it probably makes more sense to assume, as some people have done lately, that this is just how campaigns operate: they play to win. They use whatever tactics they think will achieve that goal, even if those tactics aren’t pretty.

So that was that. Or so I thought. Then Josh Marshall put up this post last night. In it, he unpacks Senator Clinton’s disingenuous deflection of a question about why she, herself, began raising the Wright issue, rather than leaving the smears to her lieutenants. Her reply, that she had been answering a query from a journalist, would have been a stretch under any circumstances. She’s a professional politician, after all, trained to choose her words carefully when speaking to a reporter. Beyond that, she’s a Clinton, someone with firsthand experience with the press’s appetite for scandal.

But in this case, the answer really strained credulity. She was talking to an editor from a Scaife paper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. And the man himself, Richard Mellon Scaife, was sitting at the table with Senator Clinton and the editor. If you don’t know anything about Scaife, it’s worth taking a minute to go here or here or here or here. Or, if you prefer vivid images and concise prose, here’s Josh Marshall:

This alone has to amount to some sort cosmic encounter like something out of a Wagner opera. Remember, this is the guy who spent millions of dollars puffing up wingnut fantasies about Hillary’s having Vince Foster whacked and lots of other curdled and ugly nonsense. Scaife was the nerve center of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. Those of us who spent years defending the Clintons from all that malarkey learned this point on day one.

Now, this is where things get somewhat personal and a bit muddled for me. I traveled to see Bill Clinton’s inauguration — though I didn’t get to go to any balls — in 1992. That day came on the heels of twelve years of Republican misrule, of course. And I had worked hard for Clinton during the campaign. I was thrilled by his promise, by the sense of a new day dawning. Somewhat later, I was one of those people Josh mentions in his post who spent a decent chunk of the 90s defending the Clintons. I watched, outraged, as the so-called Vast Right Wing Conspiracy dragged Bill and Hillary through the mud. The spectacle disgusted me. I learned to loathe people like Richard Mellon Scaife, movement conservatives who poisoned the national discourse and seemed hell-bent on ruining this country with their bad acts.

All of that said, I’ve been a fan of Barack Obama’s for a long time. He was always my first choice for the nomination — as anyone who reads this blog well knows. And, because of Senator Clinton’s Iraq vote, John Edwards was my second choice. But I was not a Clinton hater. Slowly, though, throughout the primary season, my opinion of both President and Senator Clinton has changed. You can trace the devolution on this blog (if you have too much time on your hands). It started with what I perceived to be race-baiting preceding the South Carolina primary. It continued as the Clinton camp floated discussions of seating the Florida and Michigan delegates. Things got really bad in the run-up to the Texas and Ohio primaries; I still can’t believe that Senator Clinton said that John McCain would make a better Commander in Chief than Barack Obama. What was she thinking?

But, after Texas and Ohio, something shifted for me. I could, for the first time, step outside of my Obama advocacy. I could understand the Clinton argument. Both Clinton and Obama needed the superdelegates to win the nomination, so why should Clinton leave the race before Pennsylvania? What if she ran the table in the remaining primaries? What if the wheels fell off the Obama campaign? What if?

Then the Reverend Wright story broke. Rather than stepping up and defending their fellow Democrat, Senator Clinton’s partisans fanned the flames of scandal. I was surprised. But I wasn’t shocked. Again, as I noted above, this is what campaigns do; they have their own internal logic; they are calibrated for victory. Okay, fair enough, the fight was getting ugly. It even began to seem possible to me that the Clinton camp was hoping to damage Obama so badly in a protracted primary that, should he finally win the nomination, he would lose the general election. That loss would, in turn, set Senator Clinton up to run as the I-told-you-so candidate in 2012. Because of that nagging suspicion, I didn’t think I’d be able to recapture my lost love for the Clintons. Still, I hoped to forgive tactics that were, in the end, perhaps just tactics.

Until, that is, Hillary Clinton had a meeting with Richard Mellon Scaife and handed one of his employees a quote intended to prolong the vacuous and noxious discussion of Barack Obama’s minister. That moment threatens to change forever things that have long seemed, for me at least, immutable. It now seems possible to me that the Democratic nominee may not deserve my support in the coming presidential election.

And now I’ll ask you to step into our Wayback Machine and return to 1854. At that time, the Kansas-Nebraska Act exploded the two-party system. Northern, or “Conscience,” Whigs refused to vote to allow slavery to move west. Southern, or “Cotton,” Whigs, crossed the aisle to vote with the Democrats. The Whig Party never recovered from the fight. Out of its ashes emerged free soilers, among others, and, finally, the Republican Party. Northern Democrats in the Senate, meanwhile, in service of party unity, voted in numbers for the bill. The same was true, but with only a bare majority, in the House. Regardless, the Democratic Party sold its soul in 1854. Truth be told, it had already done so, four years earlier, when Stephen Douglas had whipped votes for the Compromise of 1850, which included the notorious Fugitive Slave Act. In both instances, 1850 and 1854, national Democrats signaled their obeisance to the Slaveocracy, clearly choosing power over principle.

It took more than three-quarters of a century before the Democratic Party began regaining, in fits and starts, its moral standing on the issue of race: first during the New Deal, when FDR’s efforts to lift up the South improved the lives of African Americans, if only incidentally and somewhat incrementally; next, when Harry Truman desegregated the Armed Forces in 1948; and finally, when Lyndon Johnson stumped for and then signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, fracturing, in the process, the Democrats’ stranglehold on the Solid South.

Eric and I walked to get smoothies at lunch today. On the way to the smoothieteria, I mentioned that I was working on this post. (No, silly, I haven’t been at it all day. But thanks for the concern.) I allowed that I might have reached the point where I won’t vote for Clinton should she get the nomination. I then mentioned this recent post by Josh Marshall, in which Josh excoriates any Democrat who would consider not supporting whichever candidate represents the party in November. Josh makes many thoughtful points about the campaign before concluding his post on this note:

But to threaten either to sit the election or vote for McCain or vote for Nader if your candidate doesn’t win the nomination shows as clearly as anything that one’s ego-investment in one’s candidate far outstrips one’s interest in public policy and governance. If this really is one’s position after calm second-thought, I see no other way to describe it.

We (Eric and I) wondered if there’s anything that Clinton or Obama could do to lose Josh’s vote. Authorize war with Iran? Suggest that anti-choice justices would be okay on the Supreme Court? In light of the full text of Josh’s post, I’m sure that either of those positions, among others, would cause him to rethink backing the Democratic nominee. So, I asked, “What about Richard Mellon Scaife? Is making common cause with Scaife enough to cost Senator Clinton Josh’s support?” Really, though, I was asking if this latest gambit is enough to cost her my vote. Honestly, I didn’t know.

So here’s another question: is movement conservatism now as horrible a blight on this nation’s political culture as slavery was before the Civil War? I don’t think so. But I’m not entirely sure. I’m not a philosopher. I can’t fathom how to measure the relative impact of two such extraordinary evils. I don’t have the methods at my disposal. I am, however, certain of this: Scaife is a hatemonger, and the circles in which he travels are, by some measures at least, the latter-day equivalent of the Slave Power, a cancer poisoning the body politic. And while people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are also hatemongers, they’re performers, blow-dried blowhards, hired guns paid for doing wet work. Scaife, by contrast, is one of the people bankrolling the hits. I think this makes him far more culpable in the violence.

The Clinton campaign has chosen, in recent weeks, to lie down with this beast. Senator Clinton’s comments about Barack Obama’s unfitness to serve as Commander in Chief were right out of the GOP playbook. Bill Clinton’s decision to go on Rush Limbaugh’s show was telling and tragic in something like equal measure. And Senator Clinton’s recent willingness to work with Scaife, the author of the conspiracy she once reviled, in order to breathe new life into the Wright controversy, smacks of desperation and hypocrisy. In each of these cases, the Clintons have legitimated a bankrupt movement. Their actions suggest that the most extreme elements of the fringe right are mainstream. We will all suffer for their hubris.

And make no mistake, as we choose a Democratic nominee for the presidential election, we also very likely are choosing a leader of the party. We have to ask ourselves, will we allow the Clintons to continue to dominate the Democratic Party? They have, for years, steered it to the center. Recently, they seem to be veering further to the right. And if that’s the direction they’ve chosen in the primary, what can we expect during what promises to be a difficult general election campaign?

So, is it time to draw a line in the sand? To risk Josh Marshall’s ire? To become that which I abhor: a naive absolutist who’ll sit out an election that John McCain might win? Probably not. I’ll likely vote for Clinton should she get the nomination. I’ll walk into the voting booth holding my nose, chanting a mantra about the symbolism of electing a woman president, the sanctity of reproductive rights, and the importance of the Supreme Court. Again, though, I’m nowhere near as sure of that today as I was two days ago. Why? Because the Democratic Party can no more unsell its soul now than it could in 1850 or 1854. And buying it back, after the fact, will take more time than any of us have. I worry that Richard Mellon Scaife understands this too.