Republican opposition researchers would have sunk half their budget into digging up dirt. (Unlike Obama’s relationships with Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, an Edwards love affair would have qualified as a bona fide scandal.) And if reporters with their shoestring budgets and multiple beats were able to gather juicy tidbits, GOP operatives definitely would have found something. Say they had: It’s still a fair question whether John McCain would have used it. In 2008, McCain refused to mention Jeremiah Wright in his campaign ads, despite a staff eager to do so. There’s a good chance he would have left Hunter alone, too, especially considering his own marital history.

But McCain wouldn’t have needed to say anything. The lies would have spoken for themselves. Edwards’ moralizing and trotting out of family would have in retrospect looked hypocritical. McCain’s “straight talk” would have seemed all the more appealing. Even if Democrats stayed loyal, Edwards would have lost independents. It’s safe to assume that if Edwards had won the nomination, McCain would be president.

It’s hard to overstate the ripple effect on American politics, especially the Democratic Party. Democrats would have blown their best shot at the presidency in a generation. Every bit of joy and enthusiasm and relief that spilled out after Obama’s victory—imagine the opposite. Despair. Disillusionment. Recriminations would be shouted, scapegoats slaughtered. Liberals in their fury might even embrace McCain, who would suddenly realize he doesn’t have to tack so far right to win. Edwards would become a curse word.