How the Republicans can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat

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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST rule of American politics since the war has been: never underestimate a clever politician when he's down. Look at Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. After the drubbing which the Republican Party took on Tuesday night from the Democrats, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Clinton rule is establishing close to the same legitimacy.

The Democrats can take a lot of the credit for holding the line against their opponents, establishing key gains, and generally routing the Republicans, even in key Southern seats. They held together despite the pressure imposed by the President's problems, they got out the vote, and they scored. The President was a key factor in mobilising, in particular, the black vote, and in general, a population that perhaps would have preferred to be somewhere else on a rainy Tuesday than in the polling-booth.

But the Republicans must take a lot of the blame for what was, by any estimate, a desperately poor performance. They may claim that the economy set up them up for a fall, and that their real success lay in maintaining control of both Houses for the first time in 70 years. But the fact is that an election that seemed to be heading in their direction suddenly veered off and landed in the Democrats' laps. And just as their leader deserves the roses that will be thrown his way over the next weeks (as he approaches impeachment hearings), so the top Republican must absorb the less pleasant organic matter that will be hurled at him.

Newt Gingrich has always seemed a strange person to the British. Let's be honest: the name doesn't help. But his particular brand of revolutionary conservatism, a mixture of the Internet, supply-side economics and Southern Baptism, would not go down well even at fringe meetings of the Conservative Party Conference.

There is something pretty odd about it as far as most Americans are concerned, too. Newt is very unpopular, according to the opinion polls. He is also the first Speaker of the House of Representatives to attract a Congressional reprimand, and many associate him with the budget snarl-up that threatened to close down American government in 1995.

Thus the delight on the faces of Democrats when he became involved in the impeachment process, as it moved to Congress. Here, at last, was a political target for the public wrath that had so far been directed at Kenneth Starr. The Democrats swiftly turned all their efforts to putting Newt in the limelight. He did not react well. He seemed to want to play the impeachment straight, and tried to avoid attacks on the President (he has an interesting personal history himself). Then, in the closing days of the campaign, the Republican launched a series of advertisements that targeted the President's ethics, which seemed to backfire. The main point was that he never seemed to know in which direction he was facing.

But the problem is bigger than Mr Gingrich. The Republican party itself is Janus-faced at the moment, torn between factions that want to take the party deeper into the Bible belt and others that see this as inimical to the very idea of conservatism. The Republicans' great success was to establish themselves as the party of morality and free-market economics in the Eighties, removing the South from the Democrats and making themselves the party of government. The right was in the ascendant, eclipsing the patrician political descendants of Nelson Rockefeller and Dwight Eisenhower. But now, that process has got out of kilter, and there is no Ronald Reagan to hold the ring. The Christian right wants to be taken for granted no longer.

Mr Gingrich was associated with the Christian fundamentalist wing when he first took office, but ironically he has alienated it since then. Earlier this year James Dobson, one of the leading lights on the Christian right, threatened to pull his support for the party if it did not start delivering on Christian issues.

Mr Gingrich has also been regarded as a traitor by many since he agreed to deal with the White House over the budget in 1995, and this year he again struck a budget agreement that many would have loved to throw out. To the movement conservatives, compromise is bad; they are not in Washington to make nice. To the public, however, party politics is even worse than politics in general.

Whatever the specifics of the issues, the Republicans just didn't ring true. Monty Python used to do a sketch about "tinny" words and "woody" words. Tinny words were bad, brittle and brash. Woody was good - resonant and resounding. The Republicans have got more and more tinny, their diatribes full of sneers, animosities and moral authoritarianism that are very different from the inclusive if empty phrases of Ronald Reagan. The Democrats, tinny as a whistle in the Eighties, moved to the woodwind section under Mr Clinton. Like Mr Reagan and Mr Kohl in the Eighties, Clinton cast himself as central actor in the national drama, speaking for all, giving Tony Blair a model to follow.

Of course, there are some Republicans who can play these tunes as well. There is, of course, George W Bush, son of the former President and Governor of Texas. Mr Bush was re-elected on a wave of good feeling on Tuesday night, put back into office by a broad spread of the population that included many Democrats.

His politics are conservative, but inclusive. His style is warm and open. He is woody. Mr Bush, the exit polls showed on Wednesday night, would whip Al Gore if the current Vice-President were to stand for president in 2000. He deploys a mixture of conservative values, right-wing economics and compassion, in a winning formula that was also on display elsewhere. His brother Jeb swept the board in Florida to take the governor's mansion, using the same New Model Republicanism.

Which is not that different from the Bad Old Days, as it turns out, and therein lies the problem. The Christian fundamentalists did not take control of the Republican Party just to see it handed back to rich boys with good suits, and holiday houses in Kennebunkport. Mr Bush may delight the people of America in the same way he does Texans, but to win the Republican nomination he needs to convince Republican voters in the primary elections, which is precisely where the activists come into their own.

Equally, conservative Republicans will not take a kindly view of Mr Gingrich after this rout, and the conclusion they will draw is not to recolonise the centre. Mr Gingrich should have thrown more grenades, they will argue. The moderates in the party are fighting back. After this week they will redouble their efforts, so a very nasty little war is brewing in the Republican Party. The winners this week were the Democrats; if the Republicans cannot settle their differences quickly - with or without Mr Gingrich - then the Democrats could also come out on top in 2000.