Party in search of a new direction

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The post-election position of the Republican Party is so dire, even the most seasoned outside observers can't make up their minds what will happen to it. "There is going to be an explosion and an implosion" in its ranks, predicts, Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Whatever it looks like exactly, it is a process that is already starting as party members examine what went wrong and what they must do to get back on the horse. The first casualty was Roy Blunt, the deputy whip in the House of Representatives, who became deeply involved in Wall Street bailout negotiations. Yesterday, he announced his resignation.

The rout on Tuesday might have been a little worse. The Democrats did not make the inroads in the House of Representatives some expected – they will gain about 20 seats – and seem to have just missed achieving the magic filibuster-proof 60-seat grip on the Senate. But the numbers are still grim, even at the level of the states. The party boasts governors in just 21 states and controls only 14 state legislators.

It is a stunning reversal of fortune. Even when George Bush won re-election four years ago, the Republican bastion, built partly on the cultural "family values" vote, seemed impregnable. The first cracks appeared in the midterm congressional elections two years ago as the Democrats on Capitol Hill surged back. And here we are now, the party walls lying in ruins, the troops overrun and humiliated.

As conservative Republicans held a closed-door conclave in Virginia yesterday, the arguments began over what went wrong. Two things, said Fred Barnes, the conservative commentator. "The first is the party's image, which has suffered because of an unpopular Republican president, scandals in Congress and a party the media claims is too conservative. The second is the sour political mood in the country." Even in the area of the economy, where Democrats until recently were perceived as the weaker party because of over-spending, over-taxing traditions, the Republicans have now seemingly lost their brand. It is perhaps not surprising after eight years of drunken spending and a soaring deficit.

A few Republicans say they are looking forward to the liberating effect of out-and-out opposition, and are already keying up to oppose the first steps of the Obama White House. With luck they will turn that public sourness identified by Mr Barnes against the man just elected president and his party.

But the nitty-gritty of this week's election numbers suggest that may prove hard, because of the demographic advantages suddenly held by the Democrats. Exit polling confirmed that their new strength on Tuesday came in part from younger voters and Hispanic voters.

No party can rely on the older and rural votes alone, because they wither. What happened this week "would suggest that conservatives need to do the math of the new demographics of the United States," former Florida governor Jeb Bush commented to "We can't be anti-Hispanic, anti-young person, anti-many things and be surprised when we don't win elections."

And whose party will it be now? The explosion (or implosion) may come from the schism that is opening between moderates who argue that recovery can only come for the centre and conservatives who want to revive the cultural squabbles of four years ago

Infighting among conservatives may yet give the moderate Republicans the opening to seize control.