Clinton acquittal: Stalingrad for America's right

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The Independent Online
William Hague has an immaculate sense of political timing. He decided to visit the United States to seek wisdom from the Republicans on the very day that capped a year of political misery for his fellow conservatives, and just as Bill Clinton, their nemesis, emerged triumphant from his trial in the Senate.

What we witnessed on Friday in the US Senate was, of course, a remarkable personal survival story, the President's fight back. But it may also - against all the odds - be a watershed in American politics, similar to the Republican Party's nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, or the violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Impeachment looked like the point where America's conservative right reached its Stalingrad following three decades of surging fortunes.

If the Conservative leader is looking for advice about how to find a way back for the party after an election disaster, he may have been in the wrong place. The Republicans look as if they are staring defeat in the face. Their fixation on impeachment has made them look mean, vindictive and uninterested in more pressing national issues.

"Impeachment was the Republican agenda," said Bob Kerrey, a Democrat from Nebraska. "Instead of working on education or social security or health care reform, they've been focused on impeachment." It has become a commonplace that they wanted to win too much. "They looked a little too eager," said Ben Bradlee, celebrated former editor of the Washington Post. He described the Republican trial managers going to quiz Monica Lewinsky to "guys on their first date".

But it is not just impeachment. Opinion polls show that on all the issues which people really care about, the Republicans lag behind their opponents. On education, pensions, and health care, it is the Democrats who are seen as having the better ideas, by up to 20 percentage points. Only on issues of personal morality do the Republicans have the edge, according to a poll for the Pew Research Centre. Because of impeachment, they have not just been losing the battle of ideas: they have not even been fighting it.

Over the last few years, the religious conservatives have gained a hold on key posts in the Republican party. It was this radical religious right wing which - ironically - did for Newt Gingrich, House Speaker, after the election losses last year, and which saw off Bob Livingston, his designated successor, when he confessed to adultery. There has been a virtual civil war in some areas, with ultra-conservative candidates opposing more moderate Republicans. In many ways, the Republican party resembles the British Labour Party circa 1982, or indeed, the Conservative Party just before it lost power in 1997.

Mr Hague's timing may be suspect, but he seems to have identified part of the problem. In Washington his speech was on "The Right way to respond to the Third Way." He promised to find out "what British and American conservatives can learn from each other".

The problem is that both parties appear unable to outflank the centrist, market-driven policies of their opponents. Under their respective leaders in the 1980s, both Republicans and Conservatives appealed to similar emotions and ideas: a broad patriotism, a retreating state, Cold War fervour and tax reductions. But the Cold War is over, and the other issues have been borrowed by Mr Blair and Mr Clinton. Where to now?

Mr Hague also got some of the right telephone numbers. The people he was due to meet are mainly on the economic right wing, not the religious right, which has come to dominate ideological discussions in Washington. They are all associated with building support for the Republicans across party lines.

Michael Deaver is a former chief of staff to Ronald Reagan and one of the architects of the "Morning Again in America" campaign of 1980, which brought Democrats flooding to the Republican banner. George W Bush, son of the former president, governor of Texas and the most likely Republican candidate for the White House in the 2000 elections, is talking in terms of "compassionate conservatism," a model much closer to Mr Hague's ideas than many of the more ideological candidates. All of these people look to a broad coalition of interests, a party that is open to the centre.

But it does not look as if the Republicans can easily regroup. Impeachment has left its own scars. Five Republican Senators broke ranks on the key vote, three of whom face re-election next year. The House of Representative Republicans who acted as trial managers are furious that their colleagues in the Senate did not allow them free rein to conduct the trial. Others in the House scent the loss of their seats. Dennis Hastert, the new Speaker, will try to wrap up this mess and relaunch the party next week, stressing normal business in an abnormal time. The Republicans will set themselves a target of 60 days to show real progress, and will attempt to avoid the gridlock that has characterised their relations with the White House for years.

The omens for the 2000 elections are not good. The Democrats need only six seats to recapture the House of Representatives, and just five to regain the Senate. And at the moment, only 44 per cent of Americans have a favourable view of the Republicans, while 50 per cent hold an unfavourable view.

Compare this to the President's overwhelming approval ratings throughout last year, and you start to understand why the mood in the party is bitter. But bitterness is an unattractive emotion for a politician. If the Republicans can't get over it, and quickly, they may be doomed to many years in the wilderness.

Leading article, page 28; Profile, page 30