03/30/2008 08:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Modus Vivendi for the Democratic Civil War

The Democratic party finds itself engaged in a protracted civil war at time when it had expected to be in a position to concentrate its attacks on the Republicans and their nominee. In a year in which a Republican victory seems almost impossible -- a year in which simply asking voters, "Had enough?" should produce a Democratic landslide -- the Democrats appear, as is their wont, to have found a way to weaken themselves, perhaps to the level where their opponents have a chance to defeat them in November. There is a clear and present danger that, in turning their rhetorical artillery on each other, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton will leave the party divided, the bloodied and perhaps partially disabled winner in need of assistance from an underfunded Veterans Administration hospital, and the followers of the loser so bitter that they will not vote for the nominee.

Indeed, a new Gallup Poll indicates that 19 percent of Obama backers would vote for Republican John McCain if Clinton is nominated and 28 percent of Clinton supporters would vote for McCain if Obama is nominated. Surely many of those Democrats who say they will defect if their candidate loses will come home in November, but the numbers have to be troubling to those seeking an end to the disastrous Republican era.

While the two Democrats continue to launch missiles behind their own lines, McCain can go about his business in a demilitarized zone far from the battle in which his ultimate opponent is being wounded on a daily basis.

As the media focus on the Democratic boomerangs, McCain's enormous errors -- such as his repeated inability to recognize the difference between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni al-Qaeda -- go virtually unnoticed.

Under such circumstances, the Democratic candidates desperately need to reach a modus vivendi -- an agreement to disagree, to find a mutually advantageous way to live with their differences. Here is the basis for such an agreement:

1. It had been expected that there would be a Democratic nominee by this time and that she or he would be in a position to devote much effort and money to defining Mr. McCain and making voters aware of his shortcomings.

Why not do this anyway? Each campaign continues to raise huge amounts of money; they should make an agreement to turn over either a set amount or an agreed percentage (perhaps 20%) of what they raise to a joint Democratic campaign group with people from both campaigns that will produce commercials and other efforts to educate the public about Mr. McCain while the struggle for the Democratic nomination continues.

2. Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama should agree that at the end of each commercial against the other that their campaigns produce for the rest of the nominating contest, after they have attacked the other Democrat, they will expand the closing tagline to say: "I'm [Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama] and I approve this message -- and I also approve of [Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton] much more than John McCain."

3. The Democratic candidates should agree that during the remaining battles in their continuing civil war they will spend at least as much time in speeches contrasting themselves with Mr. McCain as they do contrasting themselves with each other. (Indeed, the Democratic candidate who focuses his or her fire almost exclusively on the "Bush-McCain" policies would very likely win more Democratic and independent support than the one who spends her or his time attacking the other Democrat.)

4. A final point in a Clinton-Obama modus vivendi would be much more difficult to achieve and may not be necessary if the first three points are agreed to: Each candidate could agree that when the nominee is chosen, he or she will pick the other as her or his running-mate and that the latter will accept.

Civil wars are not noted for their civility. In order to assure that they do not squander their overwhelming advantages in this election year, the two Democratic candidates must move quickly to assure that their party's civil war is relatively civil. A modus vivendi along the lines outlined here would go a long way toward achieving that result and averting a self-inflicted disaster for Democrats in the fall.

Robert S. McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College. His latest book, Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America