Whatever happened to American conservatism? Last week saw the death of William Buckley, founder of the National Review magazine and prime intellectual architect of three decades of Republican political dominance here. He was mourned scarcely less by the liberals he tormented than by the Republicans who revered him.
Almost at the same moment, one of those strident talk-show hosts who long ago replaced Buckley (in volume, not intellect) as American conservatism's loudest voice publicly broke with the only man who can keep the White House in Republican hands at November's election.
The episode had all the histrionics we now associate with talk radio. Bill Cunningham, self-proclaimed "conscience of a free America", whose rants grace the venerable 700 WLW station in Cincinnati, Ohio, was doing the warm-up at a McCain rally and ridiculed Barack Obama as a corrupt political hack from Chicago. Sneeringly, he repeated the Senator's full name, "Barack Hussein Obama".
John McCain quickly disowned the remarks. On air that same night, Cunningham lashed back: "I've had it up to here with John McCain. I'm not going to meet him again, and in the election I'm voting for Hillary Clinton." Showbiz is showbiz, and Cunningham probably won't carry out his threat. But the affair illustrated the great paradox of this election. The Republicans are in such a mess that the only way they can win in November is by being as un-Republican as possible.
Back in 1994, when conservative talk radio was fresh, funny and immensely influential in the Democratic rout at that year's mid-term elections, I went to see Cunningham. "Yes, we played a central part," he told me proudly. In a presidential election too, he added, "I genuinely think a national candidate cannot win if we radio hosts join forces against him".
Today, if anything, the reverse is true – at least where Republicans are concerned. The more McCain stakes out his distance from the Bill Cunninghams and Rush Limbaughs of this world, the better, it seems, are his chances. On Tuesday, Ohio holds its primary. And for all Cunningham's fury, the state's Republican voters are breaking three to one for McCain against Mike Huckabee, the true conservative in the race. Back in 1994, conservative talk-radio hosts mattered. No longer. In election 2008, anger and polarisation are out. Bipartisanship is in.
How different it was at the start of the Bush era, when mastermind Karl Rove used a "50 per cent plus one" strategy to win elections. You demonised your enemy and then relied on superior organisation to get more of your alarmed supporters to the polls than the other side did of theirs. But Rove has gone. All that remains is a failed presidency and a public sick of take-no-prisoners politics. America is moving back to the centre, and the centre is where McCain thrives.
Yes, there are "Obama-cans" – Republicans who have simply given up on their party under its present management and are switching to Obama (even though his record, by one measure, is the most liberal in the Senate). But crossover voting is not a one-way street. In 1980 Reagan Democrats fuelled that year's Republican landslide. Today, potential "McCain Democrats" abound among independents who, in a year when an incumbent Republican President is so unpopular, might normally be expected to flock to the opposition in droves.
But when "change" is all the rage, can Americans really find it within themselves to send to the White House another elderly white man, who at 72 would be the oldest incoming president in history? The answer is simple. If "change" means a readiness to challenge conventional wisdom, tell the truth and admit mistakes, McCain is your man – far more so than either Obama or Clinton. All along he has been the Republican whom Democrats feared most. He's still the underdog in November. But the tide of events may quietly be turning his way.
Only a few months ago, for instance, his support for the Iraq troop surge seemed to doom his candidacy. With the war going better – or at least less badly – when McCain argues that a speedy pullout would put all progress at risk, Americans will be more willing to believe him. They will pay even more attention when he vaunts his military experience and derides Obama's naivety. Yes, Cunningham, Limbaugh and the rest can't forgive him for championing immigration and campaign finance reform. They can't abide his friendships with liberals such as Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. As for the religious right, it still has to get over past denunciations of their most prominent leaders as "agents of intolerance". And unless McCain can galvanise this social conservative base, he will start under a severe handicap.
Equally, however, if Republican true believers are wary of McCain, they can't abide Clinton or Obama. The odds are that the base, however grudgingly, will come around – and McCain's recent complaint to the New York Times over its allegations about his past ties with Washington lobbyists must surely have helped. Nothing revs up Republicans quite like the belief that their man is being smeared by the despised liberal media.
But whether McCain wins or loses, this election marks the end of a Republican era. The party, and the conservative movement, have run out of ideas. Bill Buckley's conservatism – a fusion of free markets, anti-Communism and a dash of libertarianism – reached its flowering under Reagan. Then the religious right and the talk-show hosts took over. They had a field day under Hillary's husband, as America's post-1960s culture wars raged. But they could not save George W Bush. For a while neocons held the stage, only to be brought down by the utter failure of their theories in Iraq and the Middle East. "Surrealists" was how Buckley once described them, and he was right.
Now, old demarcation lines are blurring and old blocs disintegrating. Social and religious conservatives have less sway and they are embracing traditional left-wing causes, such as the environment. In this, and in a return to older virtues such as fiscal responsibility, may lie the Republican future. But there is no sign yet of a new William F Buckley to map the way. The stage, almost by default, belongs to John McCain. If he prevails, however, it will be thanks to his personal reputation. The inevitable will only have been postponed.
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