Rupert Cornwell: How Bush's toxic legacy did for his party

The Republicans are now facing a civil war between centrists and conservatives
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The Independent Online

They knew it was all but inevitable but defeat was no less painful and sobering for Republicans for that. The loss of the presidency, coupled with substantially larger Democrat majorities in both House and Senate marks a watershed. Not only does it leave the party in a weaker position in Washington than at any time since 1994, it probably signifies an end to a generation of conservative dominance of the political debate here.

At the least, the party faces a period of soul-searching, akin to that suffered by the British Conservative party after 1997. Probably, it is heading for civil war, between frustrated centrists and the long-dominant conservative wing of the party.

The presidency, in effect, slipped out of John McCain's grasp last night about 9.30pm local time, when the networks called Barack Obama the winner of Ohio, a state without which the Republicans have never won the presidency. "We're still hoping for the best but preparing for the worst," Nicole Wallace, one of Mr McCain's top aides, said, implicitly acknowledging defeat. By mid-evening, the party had also lost four Senate seats, with every prospect of at least two losses to come.

The biggest consolation was that Democrats looked unlikely to reach the magic number of 60 seats needed to cut short a Republican filibuster. Another bonus was, despite an unexpectedly close fight, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, hung on to his seat in Kentucky. With Mr McCain's defeat, his own survival leaves the wily Mr McConnell as the most senior office-holding Republican.

The story was the same in the House of Representatives, where the Democrats were steadily increasing their already comfortable majority as the night wore on. The only question was the number of additional seats they would win, to boost their 235-199 majority in the outgoing Congress.

Mr McConnell's political skills may not be able to prevent a split in the party. Barring disastrous overreaching by Mr Obama – not to be ruled out, given how Bill Clinton and a strongly Democratic Congress fell into that trap – the Republicans may be looking at a long spell in the political wilderness.

The party appears to have lost its grip on the vital centre of American politics. It is now in danger of being hemmed back to where it was when Mr Clinton was in the White House, with an L-shaped base stretching across the South and up into the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states.

By the time of the election, Mr McCain faced an impossible task, burdened by the intense unpopularity of an incumbent Republican president, George Bush, unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an economic and financial crisis for which the party was blamed – however unfairly. Probably only Mr McCain, with his long standing across-the-aisle appeal, could have kept defeat within last night's relatively modest bounds.

But the Arizona senator made matters worse for himself by selecting Sarah Palin. His impetuous choice of the Alaska governor initially did what it was meant to do, enthusing a conservative Republican base that had never viewed him very warmly. But as the weeks passed, Ms Palin merely laid bare the fault lines in the party, and exposed its most crippling weakness – its diminishing appeal to centrists, independents, and the old-school moderates who had kept Republicans in business in traditionally more liberal parts of the country.

Several senior Republicans made clear she was unqualified for the job. She also ignited feuding at the top of the campaign. By the end, McCain loyalists were accusing her of ignoring instructions and acting like "a diva."

Ms, Palin however, has signalled she has no intention of leaving the national political stage after her two months in the limelight. If so, she may well be standard bearer for the socially conservative right in 2012. If that wing of the party remains dominant, it is by no means out of the question that she wins the nomination.

But far deeper problems torment Republicans. A quarter century of Republican ascendancy was built on three principles: an assertive foreign and national security policy, strict adherence to the free market, and social conservatism. All three strands of that philosopy are now under threat.