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Get ready for a party crack-up

NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd explains what happens to the Republicans should John McCain lose in '08, and explores the Democrats' destiny should potential nominee Barack Obama prove unsuccessful.
Image: Presidential candidates Obama and McCain
Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain meet onstage between back to back Republican and Democratic debates in Manchester, N.H., Jan. 5, 2008Brian Snyder / Reuters file
/ Source: NBC News

Nothing salves a party's wounds like winning and nothing picks a party's scab faster than losing.

With the likely nominations of Barack Obama by the Democrats and John McCain by the Republicans, one of these two parties is headed for a 2009 crack-up that could prove as messy as any party civil war in recent history.

Of the two parties, the frontrunner for this crack-up is the GOP. Well, this is the case at least for now, since they are the underdog in this election.

McCain is a godsend to Republicans in some ways because he's uniquely competitive in a year that's clearly as anti-Republican as, perhaps, 1974. But it's still an uphill fight for him.

One can already picture how the infighting will begin.

McCain-loss scenario
For example, let's assume McCain is defeated because the GOP trailed Democrats in the enthusiasm quotient.

Expect the loudest critics to be movement conservatives.

They'll claim that McCain was doomed from the start because he failed to win the hearts and minds of conservatives during his primary run.

And because conservatives were letdown by primary results, they never came around for him in the general election.

These folks will make their point by claiming the follwing: McCain won the Republican nomination without the significant support of any movement or social conservatives.

Think about his primary wins which set the stage for wrapping up the nomination.

They occurred in New Hampshire (where he was buoyed by an influx of independents), South Carolina (where social conservatives split their support three ways between, Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney) and Florida (where moderate Gov. Charlie Crist threw his considerable political muscle behind turning out casual — translation: moderate — Republicans).

He didn't win a single important primary where he proved he could win over social conservatives.

Huckabee to blame?
McCain's folks will argue that the presence of Huckabee prevented McCain from being given an opportunity to prove that he could woo social conservatives.

But, facts are facts, and McCain won this nomination without conservatives.

To their credit, McCain's camps recognizes that this evangelical enthusiasm gap is a problem. And that's why they rushed out the endorsements of Pastors Hagee and Parsley.

They were looking to prove their social conservative bona fides. But as we now know, the campaign did a poor job vetting these guys and they've since had to throw both pastors under the proverbial bus.

In fact, I'd argue the clumsy way this whole Hagee/Parsley thing turned out shows just how inexperienced McCain is when it comes to wooing this crucial part of the Republican electorate.

Don't be surprised, by the way, if the McCain camp ends up leaning toward picking a southern "evangelical acceptable" running mate because of how things stand now.

They want to vote against Obama, but do they really want to vote for McCain?

But this crack-up with the GOP won't just include conservatives pointing fingers. Moderates and pro-business conservatives will blame "talk radio conservatives" for making the party look xenophobic during the immigration debate, in turn, driving away Hispanic voters.

If Obama can somehow manage to win two or more western states (like Colorado and New Mexico), it will give this argument more credence.

These infighting episodes that political parties go through aren't called civil wars for nothing, so trust that the finger-pointing will be all over the place.

Obviously, a McCain loss would also be coupled with a potential GOP slaughter on the House and Senate level, creating all sorts of new factions trying to blame one Republican constituency for the loss.

In short, the GOP infighting under this McCain-loss scenario would be ideological in nature and very ugly.

There will be lots of folks trying to clean up the mess, including people like Romney and Huckabee — two candidates who both lost the nomination to McCain.

This is what makes McCain's running mate choice fascinating, because a running mate on a losing ticket might end up sharing the blame. He or she then might not be trusted to help lead the party in the future.

Think about that, Mr. Romney and Mr. Huckabee as you both vie to be on that national ticket.

Now, let's turn to the Democrats, a loss by potential nominee Obama would arguably be more catastrophic to the short-term future of the Democrats than a McCain loss would be for the GOP.

Why? Because the Democrats are supposed to win.

Obama-loss scenario
If Obama loses, then it's because he lost it somehow. Maybe it'll be because he's too easily painted as an elitest. Maybe it'll be because he doesn't seem up to the job. Or maybe it'll simply be a function of racism.

But whatever the reason, losing is not an option and an Obama loss would bring out the long knives inside the party walls.

But unlike the Republicans, a Democratic loss won't be blamed on ideology.

Instead, the warring factions will consist of two groups.

First is the old Clinton guard who will argue that the party got too idealistic and didn't go back to its core FDR roots.

In addition, the Clinton guard will argue that Obama alienated too many women as well as Jewish voters and that'll explain why he didn't win Florida and, perhaps, lost Pennsylvania.

However, that won't be the end of the finger-pointing. Obama partisans will whip around and point the finger right back at the Clintons and claim she stayed in the race too long, race-baited and created an environment that was too toxic for an Obama victory.

Too divisive to win?
This bitterness between the Clinton and Obama factions will be very personal and very bitter, opening up the possibility for a third faction to develop, one that will argue that Clinton and Obama were both too divisive to win.

This group could, ironically, be led by folks like Al Gore and John Edwards, two other failed presidential candidates in their own right.

Bottom line on the Democrats: an Obama loss would create a nasty, personal fight inside the party that the media will obsess about because the characters are so television friendly.

Media catnip
The Clintons, and now Obama, have become catnip for the media and a divisive “he said, they said” fight about how the Democrats lost the unloseable election will actually mask likely gains for the party on the House and Senate level.

One thing both parties should realize about 2008: neither an Obama loss nor a McCain victory should mask the underlying dynamics of what's going on right now. And that's two things: the Republican Party will still have a brand problem in 2009, and the Democrats will still have the upper-hand at creating a bigger tent majority.

Obama and McCain are now symbols for their respective parties.

The result of this presidential election could amplify the good for the Democrats if Obama wins and amplify the negative for the Republicans should McCain lose.

Of course, the upside for Republicans in the McCain-wins scenario is that they’ll have time to fix the GOP’s brand outside of the media glare.

That's because the media will be salivating over the epic Clinton v. Obama blame game battle well into 2009.