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Can Republicans control their hatred for Hillary?

If there’s one thing Karl Rove knows, it’s how to troll. According to a report in the New York Post, Rove suggested to an audience that Hillary Clinton may have brain damage; you’ll recall that in 2012, she fainted and suffered a concussion, and when she was in the hospital, doctors found and treated her for a blood clot.

“Thirty days in the hospital?” Rove said. “And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.” Actually, she spent three days in the hospital, not thirty.

This morning, Rove told the Post’s Karen Tumulty, “Of course, she doesn’t have brain damage.” Of course! Who would suggest such a thing!

Here’s one way to understand Rove’s comments: They might be a way of testing how allegations about Clinton’s health — or about anything else — play out in the press. Will the news media pick them up and run with them? How far can Republicans go in making unsubstantiated charges? What kind of blowback will there be, and would it outweigh the benefits to Republicans of making Clinton answer uncomfortable questions? After all, while Rove may not be quite the political genius many believe, he doesn’t make statements like that without a reason.

Clinton’s age, and its implications for her health, will certainly be a topic of discussion as we move toward 2016. She’ll be 69 when the next presidential inauguration occurs. Ronald Reagan was 69 when he took office, and there is at least some evidence to suggest that during his time in the White House he showed early signs of Alzheimer’s. Bob Dole would have been 73 upon becoming president; John McCain would have been 72. Making any kind of conclusion about a candidate’s future health is always difficult, since every individual is different and there’s no way for any of us to know what our health will be like a few years from now.

But it isn’t as though Republicans have any lack of things they’d like to use to attack Hillary Clinton. And as the smart ones among them understand, there’s a fine line between keeping Clinton under constant pressure and letting their venomous loathing of her get out of control and redound to her advantage.

It’s almost inevitable that at some point during any campaign involving Clinton, the Republican crazy train will run off its rails. The hatred she inspires among the GOP base, and their willingness to believe almost anything about her, simply cannot be overestimated. We’re going to see multiple occasions when conservative media figures or Republican politicians say things about Clinton that are so vicious or so unhinged (or both) that they grab the media’s attention, generate sympathy for her, and undermine the Republican candidate’s cause. Some of those over-the-top attacks will be sexist, others will traffic in conspiracy theories, but they will definitely happen. The hearings of the select committee on Benghazi, and the response they get in conservative circles, will offer an early taste.

This may be the single greatest challenge the GOP faces from a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Can it rein in its own worst impulses and criticize her in ways that don’t just feed its own loathing but actually persuade undecided voters? Given the evidence of the past, my guess is that the answer is no.