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Rupert Cornwell

Rupert Cornwell: Where can the Republicans go now?

The comparison is the 1997 rout of the Tories, another party that had outstayed its welcome

You might wonder why on earth anyone would want to be President of the US right now. But as he contemplates financial meltdown, the collapse of the car industry, two foreign wars and lord knows what else, there's one thing that Barack Obama doesn't have to worry about: the Republican opposition.

Some election defeats can be measured arithmetically, by lost votes and seats. But what befell Republicans on 4 November has the feel of a Götterdämmerung. Suddenly Ronald Reagan, the party's patron saint during a generation of conservative dominance in America, is a figure from a remote and vanished past. Of George W Bush, once seen as Reagan's heir, no more need be said. As for Karl Rove, aka "Bush's Brain" and once touted as architect of a boundless Republican future, he is now to political strategizing what Alan Greenspan is to central banking.

An obvious comparison is the rout in 1997 of the Tories, another right-of-centre party that had outstayed its welcome, to be put to the sword by a young opposition leader promising change and renewal. But in some ways the Republicans' plight is worse.

The Tories might have been out of touch with the national mood, but at least they bequeathed New Labour a solid economy and a reduced role for the state that Tony Blair did not seriously seek to reverse. The Republicans however leave the stage not merely having outstayed their welcome. The very economic philosophy they championed, of deregulation and unfettered markets, is in ruins. In the wounded US right now that Republican anathema of big government – or at least activist government – is back with a vengeance.

It is true, as Rove has pointed out, that even in the toughest climate for Republicans since Watergate, Obama only won two per cent more of the national vote than George W Bush did in 2004. Even with the magnifier of the electoral college vote, Obama's win by no stretch ranks as a "landslide".

Nonetheless, the Republican performance was dismal. With his proven appeal to independents and centrists, John McCain was the best man Republicans could have picked: any other candidate and the defeat would have been heavier. And while there might not have been a "Bradley Effect", some exit polls suggested that Hillary Clinton, had she been McCain's opponent, might have done even better than Obama.

The more you pick over the entrails of the Republican defeat, the worse it becomes. The party lost the youth vote two to one. Obviously they never had a prayer with blacks, but Obama also routed them among Hispanics – now a larger segment of the national population – by a 67-31 margin. If John Kerry had scored equally among Hispanics, and everything else had stayed the same, that would have been enough to give him the White House in 2004. So much for the nonsense that a racial caste system in the US meant Latinos would never vote for an African-American candidate.

Republicans are supposed to be the party that encouraged wealth and opportunity. Yet this time all but one of the dozen states with the highest per capita income voted for the Democrats (the exception being the Alaska of Sarah Palin, of whom more in a moment). All but one of the poorest went for McCain (the odd one out was massively Hispanic New Mexico).

As a result, Republicans were pinned back on November into an L-shaped geographical redoubt, embracing the deep South and the Appalachians, and the sparsely populated Plains and Rocky Mountains – not exactly where America's future is being forged.

Obama not only can expect a honeymoon unmatched by any recent President. He has also built a new winning coalition that looks as if it might last; of the young, the better educated and the minorities whom demographers say will be a majority in the US around 2050. For these groups, "liberal" (or the now preferred synonym "progressive") is not a dirty word.

The old Republican coalition on the other hand has fallen apart. In 2008 many so-called "Reagan Democrats", blue-collar social conservatives who defected to the Republicans – went back to their former home. What remains is an undeclared civil war between old-style Republicans, fiscal conservatives, internationalists and for whom social values aren't high priorities, and the far right – evangelicals, good ol' boys and the rest – for whom the three Gs of god, guns and gays are all.

"You can't let your wars go on too long," was the comment of that wise old bird Haley Barbour of Mississippi, when he and his fellow Republican governors met in Miami last week to start picking up the pieces. The trouble is, this civil war is only beginning – and the governors, traditionally the party's richest talent pool, are in the thick of it.

In a country where the next presidential election campaign begins the instant the last one has ended, Republican contenders are already being touted for 2012. Almost all are governors. They include Bobby Jindal of Louisiana (the first governor of a US state of Asian-Indian origin), Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Charlie Crist of Florida... and, of course, Sarah Palin.

If you had to bet at this ridiculously early stage, she'd probably be favourite, if only because of her name recognition. But the lady herself has done nothing to discourage such talk; of late she has been adopting a kinder, gentler tone after her stridency on the campaign stump. In fact, Palin promises only more conflict.

That conflict was visible even before election day, with the leaks against her from inside the McCain camp, evidence of the old guard's disgust at how the party had been taken over by the social conservative wing which adores her. Late in the day, the two factions made uneasy common cause around Ohio's famous "Joe the Plumber", symbol of the little guy being crushed by the system.

But this Joe was a plumber trying to tackle a leaking political water main with duct tape. Sooner or later, the Republican party has to staunch the leakage of its support by replacing the pipe, by boosting its appeal among minorities, the young, and the educated. Every sign is that moment will be later rather than sooner.