The 2008 presidential election was supposed to be a referendum on a divisive commander in chief who led his country into an expensive and bloody war and presided over an economy marked by worrisome instability. Generally, such a situation would lend itself to a rather hefty advantage for the opposition party. Unless, of course, that opposition party has a remarkable gift for transforming what once seemed a clear path to victory into a contest that it may actually lose. Say hello to today’s Democratic Party.

Recent polls suggest that the prolonged and increasingly childish fight for the Democratic nomination has led a number of Democrats to prefer John McCain over their second choice for the Democratic nomination. Certainly, some of these voters are basing their decisions on the fact that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama can be seen as polarizing or divisive figures. Other Democrats harbor nostalgia for the John McCain who challenged Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000, crossed party lines to support campaign-finance reform, and led a moderate coalition to preserve the Senate’s power to filibuster judicial nominees.

Can Democrats’ (mis)perception that today’s McCain is that same maverick of 2000 fully explain why 28 percent of Democratic Clinton supporters and 19 percent of Obama supporters intend to cast their votes for McCain if their preferred candidate loses the nomination? Are they willing to conveniently ignore that Obama’s and Clinton’s policy stances are nearly identical on a host of issues? Have liberal Democrats forgotten that McCain, for all his charm and moderate personality, is a staunch supporter of a long occupation in Iraq, a social conservative and a candidate who intends to seek “men and women like [John Roberts and Samuel Alito] as his judicial appointees”? In short, what does it take to make about a quarter of Democrats decide that they prefer four more years of conservative executive leadership to a Democratic administration headed by someone other than their first choice?

The well-publicized role of superdelegates in the Democratic nomination process, the legal wrangling over Florida and Michigan re-votes, and the increasing volume of personal attacks between Clinton and Obama have contributed to an electorate that is slowly becoming more disgusted with an opposition party than with an unpopular president. Given the vociferous hatred of Bush espoused by a vast majority of Democrats, the present situation should be nothing short of terrifying to Democratic Party leaders.

In the interest of furthering the desires of their constituencies (I’m assuming that a significant number of Democratic primary voters see this election as a chance to reverse a number of Bush-era policies), Clinton and Obama need to take a number of public steps toward reconciliation. They could start by reminding voters of their similar views on Iraq, taxes and judicial nominations. They could promise publicly to support the eventual nominee and encourage their supporters to do the same. They could even return to the rhetoric that brought them success in the first place – reminding Americans of their respective qualifications to replace Bush and lead this country to greener pastures.

A Democratic Party meltdown in this election would be inexcusable to millions of rank-and-file Democrats and independents, as well as a number of Republicans disgusted with the Bush years. It’s one thing to muster a miserably ineffective campaign and squander the unprecedented unity of the Democratic coalition in 2004, as Kerry did. It’s another thing to allow petty bickering, legal challenges and procedural quirks to undermine the genuine desire of a large number of voters for a viable alternative to current Republican leadership. If the Obama-Clinton feud continues in its current fashion, the Democratic Party is poised to do exactly that.

The central message of Obama’s campaign is change. Clinton may be a latecomer to the change rhetoric, but she has adopted the message into her campaign as well. Both candidates now have a chance to go beyond rhetoric and change the tenor of this grotesquely protracted nomination battle. If they fail to do so, historians and political scientists in the next few decades may have the opportunity to wonder exactly what sort of incompetence caused an opposition party to lose an election against an unpopular and ineffective incumbent administration.

Xan White is a junior in Pierson College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.