The Republicans have already lost

What the impeachment of Clinton has shown is how unhinged the Republican Party has become
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IT LOOKS as if, after 12 long months, the greatest show on earth - though maybe not the trial of the century - is drawing to a close. As Dale Bumpers, the former Arkansas Senator, spoke on Thursday, there was a strange feeling in Washington, as though a wind were blowing through the city, or a monsoon were breaking. The sense of an impending end was palpable; the new age of After Monica. Maybe not today, or this week, but soon, the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton will come to an end, either with dismissal or his acquittal.

It has been a bizarre year: one of fascination and compulsion at times; of deep tedium and perplexity at others. But the lasting question, and the least satisfying element of the whole thing, is: what is it all about? What is it all for?

For the President's supporters, it is a right-wing conspiracy, a partisan attempt to bring down a great man and reverse the electorate's choice. For his opponents, it is about the rule of law, the Constitution and the crimes of a man who should have resigned months ago if he had any honour. These competing claims just do not meet in the middle in any way. They are what social scientists call incommensurable: they reflect two different world views and sets of moral, political and legal assumptions that just don't match up.

One way of looking at the significance of the whole affair is just this: that what has happened is a visible manifestation of the great kulturkampf between two American value systems, the famous "Culture Wars". This argument holds that since the Sixties, the left-leaning, liberal, secular, modernising tide in America has competed against the traditional, religious, conservative view. Clinton clearly represents the former for most people, while the other side has been led by people like Kenneth Starr, Henry Hyde and Trent Lott, unbending advocates of law and morality (in public, at least).

The right will argue that After Monica, chaos is come again, and the dominance of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ways is over. This is over-egging it. Free love is unlikely to break out in the streets of middle America. Cannabis will not be smoked in public buildings (nothing, in fact, will be smoked in public buildings, bars or restaurants below a certain size, for the foreseeable future). The two main candidates for high office in 2000 will most likely be two impeccable Wasps: George Walker Bush and Albert Gore.

It takes a bit of stretching to see the events of the last year as constituting a Rubicon. The nation as a whole has been far from riveted. But to some extent, that is the point. For at least two decades, the right - disproportionately Southern and Western, white and Baptist - has been politically dominant, whatever was going on in the streets of America. Conservatives began their ascent in the Sixties, as the white majority rejected what it saw as the Democrats' shift to the left. They had money, ideology and political dominance on their side. Although the nation changed, Washington, to a remarkable degree, did not.

The hold that the conservative right had on political debate has been broken, in the last year, by its inept handling of the debates in Congress, by the internal wars within the Republican Party, and by its appalling grasp of public opinion. In many ways, the conflict has looked rather like the depiction of the English Civil War in 1066 And All That: the Clintonites, like the Cavaliers, are Wrong but Romantic, whereas the Republicans are Right but Repulsive.

I do not think that the impeachment of Bill Clinton is the culminating battle of a great social shift in the US and the end of the fight over values; I think it is the beginning of another political change: the rewriting of the Republican Party, which has come badly unhinged. The party represents a shard of white, Southern, conservative opinion that is a minority in America, and has been for decades. If the Republicans identify that, and that alone, with righteousness, values and morality, it will make a historic mistake. If there has been a culture war for the last year, it has been mainly because the Republicans have forced one - and they have lost. They cannot blame the moral malaise or the Sixties for that - they can only blame themselves.

Most Americans find themselves somewhere in between the two great world views, and are not ready to be dragooned into a war. To the astonishment of the pollsters and politicians, they express views of some complexity instead of stark ideological polarisation, as they might have done 20 years ago. And so they have turned off, which is what, in a few weeks, we shall all be able to do - with some relief, but a little nostalgia.