Rupert Cornwell: In George they trust - and in hope, America awaits his next big move

George Bush stands at the zenith of his power. He has answered those who scorned him - at home as well as abroad - in a decisive fashion and secured an unarguable mandate. But will he use it to unite a country that is now so riven - in geography, culture and mindset - or deepen its divisions?

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One question above all dominates this exhausted US election aftermath: if George Bush did what he did in his first term, when he lost the popular vote and was handed the White House by the Supreme Court, what on earth is he going to do now?

One question above all dominates this exhausted US election aftermath: if George Bush did what he did in his first term, when he lost the popular vote and was handed the White House by the Supreme Court, what on earth is he going to do now?

As he spent the weekend catching up on his sleep at Camp David, the 43rd President could survey his country and the world at the very zenith of his power. He had answered those who scorned him - at home as well as abroad - in the most decisive fashion. This time he had secured an unarguable mandate, with a small but decisive advantage in the electoral college and an unchallengeable majority of the popular vote.

On Thursday morning, exactly 24 hours after John Kerry finally admitted defeat, Mr Bush strode with a victor's assurance into a press conference to set out the goals of his second term. "I earned political capital in this campaign, and I intend to spend it," he said. "That is my style." But will he spend it to unite his country or to deepen its divisions? America is now a country politically so divided - in geography, culture and mindset - that this time the normal standards by which elections are won and lost scarcely applied. This impassioned election was not a referendum on the eminently undistinguished Bush record. It was not a considered national verdict on the mess in Iraq, on the country's huge deficits, on corporate scandals, on a million lost jobs or on the three debates with John Kerry, watched by record audiences, in which the President was trounced.

It was not even a judgment on Mr Bush's handling of the "war on terror", despite the last-minute spectacle of Osama bin Laden - alive, well and very much at large - on the country's TV screens. Last Tuesday Americans simply voted their team. And not only is the Republican team stronger right now, it looks set to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

The 2004 election is further confirmation that the Clinton interregnum was an aberration, fashioned by a uniquely talented Democratic politician whose like will not resurface for a generation. Republicans now rule American politics as the Democratic coalition assembled by Franklin Roosevelt dominated between 1932 and 1968 (for Clinton in the 1990s, read the Eisenhower interlude in the 1950s).

FDR divided the country by class to form his Democratic majority. George Bush (or rather the modern Machiavelli Karl Rove, the political adviser whom Bush hailed as "the architect" of his victory) built on the work of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to divide the country by "values" - shorthand for those cultural and social issues of abortion, gun control, gay rights and the rest.

Each coalition has its anomalies. The Southern segregationist bloc was a pillar of the Roosevelt majority. The South has, of course, changed sides. But though the Democrats nominally remain "the party of the little guy", Mr Bush last week drew crucial support from poorer people in the heartlands whom Republicans have induced to vote against their economic interests, in the higher calling of "values". A strong case can be made that the fatal dagger thrust to Mr Kerry was delivered on 6 February by judges in his own home state. That day, the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage, horrifying social conservatives and evangelical Christians - core Bush constituencies - across the country.

With the vigorous encouragement of the White House, initiatives banning gay marriage went forward in 11 states, among them the vital swing state of Ohio. Not only did every one of them pass; the initiatives' very presence on the ballot was an extra motive for conservatives to turn out for Bush in a desperately close election, where getting out the vote was the key to victory.

In one respect, Tuesday's results merely proved how America's political divide is set in stone. Out of 50 states, only three small ones switched sides. New Hampshire this time went Democratic, while Mr Bush picked up New Mexico and (though the final tally is not complete) almost certainly Iowa as well. In each case the difference was a few thousand votes.

But the overall national figures told a different story. In 2000 Mr Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore by 500,000 votes. This time he won it by 3.5 million. Four years ago Democrats were angry at what they believed was a stolen election. On 3 November 2004 they felt only sadness. They had given every- thing, yet they had been squarely, and fairly, defeated.

This weekend the full implications of the defeat are starting to sink in.

Remarkably, in a party given to public feuding, no knives are out for Mr Kerry. His message may have been fuzzy; he may have lacked the human touch. But he took his opponent apart in the debates, and in the final month more than justified his reputation as a strong closer. He almost pulled off the feat of toppling an incumbent president in time of war - and would have done so had as few as 70,000 people in Ohio voted differently. The problem, Democrats acknowledge, is not so much the messenger as the message.

Mr Kerry's failure proves anew how difficult it is for a longstanding senator with an equally long and complicated voting record to win the White House. It also suggests it is well-nigh impossible for a perceived north- eastern "liberal" to prevail. That point should be borne in mind by the bookmakers who make Hillary Clinton the early favourite for the Democratic nomination in 2008.

To be sure, even in this divided US, a Democrat can win the presidency without the South and the Plains and Rocky Mountain states, even without Florida. But the margin for error is tiny. As expected, everything came down to Ohio. Mr Kerry had to carry it. He came up a fraction short, and lost the election as a result.

The real fight among Democrats is ideological. It boils down to this. Should the party go populist and get back on the barricades of class warfare? Or should it steal the Republicans' clothes and move towards the centre, much as Tony Blair has done in Britain? The genius of Bill Clinton was that he did both. John Kerry, alas, did neither. But among the losers this debate has barely begun. For the winners, meanwhile, there is a country to govern.

Both Mr Kerry's gracious concession and Mr Bush's speech proclaiming victory (as well as a thousand newspaper editorials) brimmed with pious talk of unity, compromise and bipartisanship to heal the wounds of a bitter campaign. After all, Mr Bush has fought his last election. He no longer needs to pander to his conservative base, nor need he worry about an ambitious vice-president with his eyes on the succession. Finally, there is that small second-term matter of "legacy". All this might argue for a kinder, gentler Bush. After all he ran in 2000 on a platform of "compassionate conservatism" and people believed him, not least because of his record during his six years as governor of Texas, faced with a Democratic legislature and a powerful Democratic lieutenant-governor.

But the Texas period was always something of a myth - or rather a sideshow played out on a far smaller and easier stage. Over the past four years in Washington, Mr Bush has shown his true political self.

He has played the game by very tough rules. He has consistently placed ideology ahead of reality; the supreme virtue is not to make correct decisions, simply to decide. Mr Bush has proved very good at setting ambitious goals, but very bad as a manager - be it the Iraq war or the country's finances. And his press conference on Thursday contained scant suggestion that the mix would be different over the next four years.

The President was confident, smiling, faintly patronising as usual, and unable to admit even the shadow of a mistake. He made clear he would be an activist incumbent - at least until "lame duck" status descends after the 2006 mid-term elections. At home, he plans to initiate a radical reform of social security, an overhaul of the tax code and sweeping tort reform.

Abroad, he promises total commitment to Iraq and a continuing effort to bring democracy to the greater Middle East.

But the problems drowned out by the din of the campaign have not gone away: not just Iraq, but Iran and North Korea and the threat of nuclear proliferation, and the Palestinian/Israeli conflict that fuels instability and radical Islam throughout the entire region.

Then there is the ticking time bomb of the "double deficits", the colossal US trade gap now running at more than $600bn (£325bn), alongside huge federal budget deficits stretching as far as the eye can see. Their financing depends on the readiness of foreign investors to buy US securities. If that readiness disappears, the result will be a run on the dollar, higher interest rates and - some fear - a renewed slide into recession.

That would be a reality even the faith-based George Bush could not deny. The markets on Friday were instructive: relief that the election had produced a clear outcome again drove Wall Street higher, but the dollar plunged to a record low against the euro, with further falls expected.

A financial crisis would throw the Bush agenda into chaos. But even without one, the President will need bipartisan support to advance his cause. In the Senate, Democrats cling to a sliver of power, having retained 45 seats, four more than the 41 needed to mount a filibuster. At the same time, the Republicans' southern Senate sweep last week has replaced five moderate Democrats (including Mr Kerry's running mate, John Edwards) with five conservative Republicans, widening the ideological divide on Capitol Hill.

Ever fond of surprises, Mr Bush could extend an olive branch by appointing a prominent Democrat to a Cabinet post. But what incentive is there for a Democrat to accept, especially when the most important posts, at the Pentagon, State and Justice Department, are almost certainly earmarked for Bush loyalists?

The acid test, however, will be how Mr Bush chooses to fill the vacancies - perhaps as many as three - that will crop up on the Supreme Court during his second term. The court, not Congress, is where America's all-consuming culture wars will be fought, over abortion, states' rights and the troika of "God, guns and gays". And already legislators, lobbyists and activists of every hue are staking out their positions in the expectation that Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 80 and suffering from cancer, will be the first to step down, perhaps before next summer.

The President could throw down the gauntlet by nominating blatantly conservative justices - inviting a bloodbath on Capitol Hill that would surely doom his other legislative initiatives. Or Mr Bush could go the bipartisan route, picking moderates after consultation with Democrats.

Either way, he has the chance to shape the court for a generation.

In foreign policy, too, the story will probably be similar. Colin Powell, once seen as the lone voice of reason in Mr Bush's national security team, is likely to be among the first Cabinet members to leave, diminished in stature and demoralised by endless infighting with the Pentagon. For a while at least, Mr Powell's arch-rival, Donald Rumsfeld, will probably stay on.

In capitals around the world leaders talk of fence-mending and new starts.

But they would be wise to keep expectations low. Mr Bush might name to the State Department a moderate Republican like Richard Lugar, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, popular among Democrats and respected abroad.

But Mr Bush is made the way he is. He has been a president convinced of simple certainties about the world, and he will remain so. There will be no Damascene conversion on global warming or to the merits of the United Nations. And lest anyone forget, for the next four years as well, the most powerful vice-president in modern US history will bear the name Dick Cheney.

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