Mary Dejevsky: We are seeing a return to the politics of America before Bush – and about time too

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The Independent Online

Were you still up for New York? Or even California? Sadly, even if you were, you will probably have to repeat your sleep-sacrifice in coming weeks. The morning after Super Tuesday left the thrilling race between the two Democratic candidates open, though with a slight advantage to Hillary Clinton, while John McCain failed to win the clean-sweep that would have clinched the Republican nomination.

That both contests continue, however, is good for American democracy and good for the voters in those late primary states – Virginia, Texas and Pennsylvania among them – that never usually get a look-in in choosing the nominees. It should also be good for those of us outside the United States who cannot but be affected by their choice. Whoever becomes the next President will have been tested in the fire of campaigning longer and harder than any US leader of recent times.

Alongside the notion of this as a campaign without precedent, however, has grown up the idea that it breaks a mould. On the Democrat side this is true. Whatever happens next, the Democrat ticket will be headed by a woman or an African-American. Even if the Democrats lose in November – an eventuality too readily dismissed so early – 2008 is the first year that a "minority" candidate will have come this far – a minority candidate, moreover, who has campaigned from the mainstream, rather than as a female or black representative.

To speak about mould-breaking on the Republican side, however, would be quite wrong. Whoever wins the nomination – and it is surely safe to assume that it will be John McCain – all three remaining candidates have run their campaign simultaneously on two fronts. Overtly they have been running against each other; covertly, they have also been running against George Bush and his highly questionable legacy. In what appears a desperate quest for precedents other than the incumbent president, they have increasingly invoked Ronald Reagan, lately canonised as patron saint of 20th-century Republicanism.

John McCain well fits that profile. And if he does become the nominee, what we will be looking at is not mould-breaking, but a return to a Republicanism that predates the rise of the southern Evangelicals, on whose coat-tails George W Bush rode so successfully into office.

The significance of this reversion in changing the complexion of US politics cannot be overestimated. It would effectively mark the end of the religious right as a serious political force in Washington. Even if McCain chose the former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, as his running mate – an option which, at this early stage, has a certain logic – we would still be seeing at very least the beginning of the end of Christian fundamentalism incorporated into national politics. A 15-year experiment that began with the Georgia Senator, Newt Gingrich, and his Contract with America, would be reaching the end of its natural life.

With it, arguably, could go much of the political influence of the conservative south. The nomination of John McCain could then take on even more significance, ending the 50- year rise in the twin influences of the south and the religious right in US politics.

Here, McCain's association with Arizona may be relevant. The state where McCain chose to settle after leaving the military and built his political career is in the American south, but not of it. A sun-belt state that has set the pace for population growth, and has – in Phoenix – the fastest-expanding metropolitan area in the US, Arizona is at the forefront of many US social and demographic trends. They include the growing number and influence of the Hispanic population and a marked trend in what is being called the young, "millennial" generation of Americans towards far greater racial tolerance and secularism.

All this will deserve closer scrutiny, should John McCain become president. For the moment, however, it is through the narrower focus of his Republicanism that his politics deserve to be viewed. As a non-Bush, even anti-Bush Republican, he resembles something of a throwback to another generation.

For while it may be hard to remember now, there was a time when to be a leading Republican did not mean "doing God". It did not mean embracing a "pro-Life" stance as an article of faith. Nor did it entail any obligation to introduce faith-based groups, prayer sessions or any other forms of religious devotion into the structures of the administration.

As part of his canonisation, Ronald Reagan has been cast – by those in whose interests it is – as a Christian conservative who would have been entirely at home in the religious south. Such groups turn up writings in which he opposed abortion, while emphasising his attendance at prayer breakfasts.

In his mainstream speeches and pronouncements, however, his references to religion were sparing. Not as sparing, perhaps, as those of Richard Nixon, his predecessor but two, or those of Nixon's successor, George Bush Snr, but nothing that came anywhere near challenging the Constitutional separation of religion and state. Reagan did not make a fetish of abortion. He was the first US President to be divorced. Perhaps his most acclaimed and accomplished speech – on the loss of the space shuttle Challenger – made no reference to "evil" or religion. The final sentence, which spoke of the crew slipping "the surly bonds of earth... to touch the face of God", was a line of poetry.

And while Reagan might be accused of nurturing messianic ambitions rather similar to those of George Bush in his mission to spread democracy and freedom around the world, it is striking that he never used military force in pursuit of that goal. His ideological struggle was waged exclusively in the sphere of ideology. As was Nixon's, and – until the unequivocally just war to expel Iraq from Kuwait – that of George Bush Snr, too.

If McCain's Republicanism conforms to this earlier variety, the qualms that many Britons and Europeans feel about a return of a Republican to the White House may prove to be misplaced. His decision to stop over in London tomorrow en route to a defence-related engagement in Germany confirms this, smacking of a return to a pre-Bush view of the world. George Bush has not been to London since his beleaguered state visit five years ago.

There are other questions about McCain's candidacy to be sure. Some regard him as too erratic, impetuous and, frankly, gung-ho, to make a reliable president. And there is the age question. At 72, and with a chequered medical history, McCain will find his physical capacity to be President questioned. As a politician, though, he is a chip off the old, more cosmopolitan, Republican block. After eight years of Bush, that is a difference we should find reassuring.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

For rolling comment on the US election visit: independent.co.uk/campaign08

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