Comment November 2004

After the Fall

What will happen to the losing party after the election?

A famous football coach once declared that "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," and few lines could better capture the attitude prevalent in American politics right now. The quotation referred to gridiron rivalries, but one would be hard pressed to find greater determination and resolve to win than that which exists in the battle between Democrats and Republicans that culminates on November 2.

Since at least the time of the invasion of Iraq—and for some, since the 2000 election—the politics in both parties has seemed focused on a single goal: winning the White House. Polls show that the electorate is more aware of the presidential race than it has been in years; that its views are more passionately held; that voters have made up their minds earlier than they usually do; and that after years of steady decline, the number of Americans who participate in this election is certain to soar. But hidden by this intense desire to win is a reality whose consequences no one seems willing to contemplate: come Election Day, one party will lose.

What then? The answer almost certainly is internal chaos and collapse for the losing party, whichever it may be. So firmly ingrained is the combat mentality that neither party believes the opposing candidate is capable of "winning" the election—only that its own candidate or campaign is capable of losing it. Which means that regardless of which party loses, the recriminations will resemble, in the words of Chris Lehane, an adviser to Al Gore's failed 2000 campaign, "the scene in the classic western The Treasure of the Sierra Madre when everyone turns on each other and begins blasting away."

The upheaval will be immediate. If John Kerry loses the election, the aftermath, like the campaign itself, will become a heated referendum on Iraq—and on whether Kerry took a clear enough position. The left wing of the Democratic Party has held itself largely in check since 2000, directing its anger first at the Supreme Court (for the ruling that gave the Republicans the election) and then at President Bush, rather than at moderates and hawks in its own party. That restraint will collapse. And the rift between liberals and moderates that Bill Clinton (in one way) and George Bush (in another) each helped bridge for a time will once again break wide open. A Kerry loss will most likely also signal the return of the liberal standard-bearer Howard Dean, whose decision to fall in line behind Kerry struck many party insiders as an attempt to rehabilitate his own image. Moderates or New Democrats who supported the war will not be nearly as quick to blame Iraq for Kerry's loss as they will to blame Kerry himself. The clash between the party's two power centers could thrust it back to the prelapsarian period in the 1980s before the arrival of Bill Clinton.

In fact, not even he may be immune from the backlash. A Kerry loss will quickly turn into a referendum on Clintonism—specifically (some liberals will argue) on the campaign strategy he bequeathed to Kerry. Many on the left view Kerry's complicated Iraq position as too clever by half, a dangerous attempt to emulate Clinton's talent for triangulation on the part of a man lacking the political charisma that enabled the former President to triumph.

Although old splits may re-open, new ones threaten as well. The current campaign could presage another struggle in the Democratic Party, this one between insiders and activists. The latter—who fueled Dean's candidacy in 2003 and Kerry's financial juggernaut in 2004—hold greater sway than many establishment Democrats understand. And the capacity the Internet provides to raise money and organize makes these "entrepreneurial Democrats" an ascendant power in the party.

But politics boils down to personality, and it abhors a vacuum. The current campaign has put forward a host of possible future stars that includes governors (such as Bill Richardson, of New Mexico, and Tom Vilsack, of Iowa), senators (Evan Bayh, of Indiana, and, soon, Barack Obama, of Illinois), and even former presidential aspirants (Dean, Wesley Clark, and possibly Al Gore), who will rush to position themselves as national figures. But the two who will emerge soonest are John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, both expected to pursue the 2008 Democratic nomination in the event of a Democratic loss this year. The possibilities for drama and intrigue are many—beginning in 2006, when Clinton's presidential ambitions will be complicated by first having to defend her Senate seat, and perhaps further complicated if the Republicans field a big-time challenger. Her path will only be made harder by the conviction, sure to take hold if Kerry loses, that no Democrat from the Northeast can win the presidency—not even a Clinton.

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Chuck Todd is the editor-in-chief of Hotline and an Atlantic contributing editor.

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