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Rupert Cornwell

Rupert Cornwell: Rage will not win the Republicans the White House

Out of America: US voters are in mutinous mood, but by fanning the flames now, the right risks missing the prize

For what is supposed to be somnolent August, this has been an indecently busy political week here in the US. It kicked off with sometimes bitterly fought party primaries across five states, to select candidates for November's mid-term elections. It ended yesterday with a preposterously named "Restoring Honor" rally on the Washington Mall, organised by the Fox News blowhard Glenn Beck, attended by thousands of Tea Partiers and addressed by the blessed Sarah Palin in person.

That this event was taking place on the very same spot, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and on very same day, 28 August, as Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech of 1963 merely added to the controversy. But controversy, of course, is grist to the Fox/Beck ratings mill. The real question raised by the primaries and the rally is another: have the Republicans moved so far to the right they risk political suicide?

Right now the question seems absurd. After all, voters are in a mutinous mood: to quote the immortal line of news anchor Howard Beale (aka Peter Finch) in the 1977 movie Network: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more." For Howard Beale back then, read Glenn Beck now.

Nor does anyone doubt that Democrats face a thrashing this autumn. The odds are they'll lose control of the House of Representatives. They may lose the Senate as well. Strident conservatism, you might assume, is exactly what's required. But maybe not.

Last week's elections merely proved what has long been evident – that the right now dominates the activists who account for a disproportionate share of voters in primaries, where you're lucky if turnout reaches 10 per cent.

Bear in mind only a small fraction of congressional seats are "in play" at a given election. Most Republican incumbents face their biggest threat not from a Democrat at the general election, but in the primary, from within their own ranks. So you move to the right to head off a more conservative challenger. Even so, sometimes that challenger prevails. Either way, the balance of the party on Capitol Hill is nudged further to the right.

Take Tuesday's result for John McCain, the defeated Republican nominee of 2008, who remains his party's highest-profile Senate member. McCain prevailed in Arizona's Republican Senate primary, but only by shifting markedly to the right on a host of issues, such as climate change and immigration reform.

Such tactical shifts, however, could not save incumbent Senator Bob Bennett in Utah earlier this year; they probably won't save Barbara Murkowski in Alaska either, who currently trails a Sarah Palin-backed challenger. And they didn't save other Republican establishment candidates in recent primaries from insurgents endorsed by the Tea Party.

Maybe these upsets reflect no more than a natural anti-incumbent mood, stoked by high unemployment and the feeble economic recovery, by the unending partisan squabbling by the country's existing elected representatives in Washington DC, and by dislike of excessive "big government" liberalism, exemplified by Obama's health care reform. And maybe that's enough for Republicans now. But not perhaps in 2012, when the real prize, the White House, is at stake.

It can never be stressed enough: in democracies elections are won and lost not on the extremes but in the centre. In 2008, Obama won by persuading independents he was what the country needed. Today, those independents, whom Beale might have described as "disappointed as hell", are deserting him in droves. But whether they will cross en masse to Republicans in two years' time is another matter.

Once again McCain will be a critical pointer. Will he, once re-elected in November, revert to the old McCain? Or will he bow to the prevailing ultra-conservative winds? This is not to say McCain, who turns 74 today, plans another White House run in two years time. He doesn't. But his behaviour will help decide who wins the presidency.

If Republicans keep going the way they're going, then Democrats will be able to present them as out-of-touch extremists. Independents, they calculate, will be scared back into the fold. Indeed, there are signs this is happening already. Republicans not long ago had high hopes of claiming the spectacular scalp of Harry Reid, the current Senate majority leader, in Nevada. But then Republican primary voters, urged on by the Tea Party, picked Sharron Angle to challenge him. A former state legislator, she has called, inter alia, for the abolition of social security and wants the US to pull out of the United Nations. Reid is portraying her as a dangerous nutcase and, though still unpopular in Nevada, he is now comfortably ahead in the polls.

Which brings me back to the Beck rally. For the moment, the indignation vented by Fox News and the Tea Party serves Republicans well. But the latter know they are riding a tiger. Their spokesmen deny all involvement with the occasion: "What rally?", they ask.

Matters are of course not helped by the fact that Beck has called President Obama a racist with "a deep-seated hatred for white people" – hardly fitting words for an anniversary of the King speech. But Republicans are also fully aware that, in politics as in sport, you can't beat something with nothing. Last week's clamour cannot mask the fact that right now the Republicans, apart from rage, have nothing.