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.
The turmoil in the Republican Party could be even worse. Conservatives seem wholly unprepared for the possibility of a Bush loss. As with the Democrats, repercussions would focus first on the issue of Iraq, and a campaign for regime change aimed at the neoconservatives atop the party's foreign-policy establishment will be swift. Repudiation of those most closely associated with Iraq—Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and perhaps even Dick Cheney—will arrive from almost every corner of the coalition, from isolationists like Pat Buchanan to internationalists like Chuck Hagel.
The collateral damage would extend even to the Bush family; it's hard to imagine Republicans nominating Jeb Bush and risking the possibility of a third single-term Bush President. Instead we should expect the rise of a handful of new coalitions: a group of moderates, tough on taxes and terrorism, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mitt Romney, and George Pataki; a re-emergence of the party's social-conservative wing, which might produce its own great hope for 2008, someone like Senator Sam Brownback, of Kansas; and an internationalist faction, newly empowered by a Bush loss to counterbalance the neoconservatives, most likely headed by Chuck Hagel, of Nebraska. Add to these the personalities that defy easy classification: Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Tom DeLay, all of whom would command powerful followings.
The failed strategy behind a Bush loss would be the other obvious focal point: Karl Rove. From the moment Rove learned that Bush had lost the popular vote in 2000, he has single-mindedly pursued the goal of increasing the Republicans' base. As libertarians and moderates have pointed out, doing so alienates Bush from the ever elusive swing voters—and if their failure to come around to Bush is seen as the cause of his loss, the failure will be attributable to Rove. But so far, few Republican insiders believe that a loss will spell Rove's doom. By now too much of the party infrastructure bears Rove's signature to deny him a major role. Many believe he has already chosen a horse for his next race: Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, likely to be the chief antagonist of a President Kerry.
Should they lose, the Republicans—like the Democrats, if that is their fate—will regroup and return to the tactics of the past. They'll organize behind a single unifying principle: hating the President. And they'll be powered by the kind of Internet-funded activists who came into their own during the 2004 campaign, and whom not even Bill Clinton had to face.
All this suggests that whichever party loses the election will face the sort of ideological struggle that seems to occur every generation or so in politics—the Republican bloodletting that followed Barry Goldwater's loss in 1964, the crisis of identity in the Democratic Party that followed Michael Dukakis's loss in 1988. And this time, given the tightness of the race and the promise of victory within reach of either party, the shock will be greater still. The final weeks of this campaign will doubtless stretch out like a lifetime—and for the losing party, the next four years will seem like an eternity.