The Republicans plan to get it right next time

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WASHINGTON - In the think-tanks and policy institutes, old warriors grin and plot while baby-faced politicos bubble with enthusiasm. Among the politicians, there is faction-fighting - but also optimism and a keen ideological vigour. New campaigns are being discussed, fresh tactics prepared. And no, I am not talking about the victorious Democrats but about the defeated Republican right.

It would be grossly premature to equate the Clinton success as the end of the era of the radical right. There are many small reasons for this, but two big ones. First, much of the President-elect's economic rhetoric, if not his likely actions, tips its cap to the right-wing revolution of the previous decade: don't bash the middle classes; squeeze the bureaucracy; prune spending rather than raise taxes.

Second, the minority Clinton victory has left a big swathe of middle America still tetchy and unreconciled to conventional politics. That includes the 20 per cent who voted for Ross Perot, and the rebel Republicans who backed Pat Buchanan against George Bush. It also includes so- called 'Reagan Democrats' who liked Bill Clinton's message that it was time for change but who are basically anti-government. In bars and diners across the US, they will have been snarling as they watched the succession of corporate lawyers and lobbyists shimmying into jobs in the new administration. This is change?

David Broder, veteran leader of the Washington press corps, takes the Perot phenomenon seriously: 'There is an acute sense, shared by many Americans, that the country has taken a wrong turn . . . a sense in which Clinton and the new people in Congress are here on probation, and an acute consciousness of the fact that if they don't clean up their act, they will be tossed out. It is not business as usual.' He believes the Clinton honeymoon will be brief.

The budget deficit is one important symbol of the failure of Washington, and the early signs are that the Clinton presidency will fall far short of the candidate's firm promises to halve it. Talk of tax cuts has stopped abruptly, and increases, notably on petrol, look inevitable. Some Washington economists predict that the 'Republican deficit', caused by the overestimate of inflation during the Reagan boom, and then by the Bush recession, will actually be added to by a 'Democrat deficit' as spending rises.

Here, however, is a prediction: the deficit will not be the source of the sharpest controversies. Those will be about what used to be thought of as second-order lifestyle issues - gay rights, family values, abortion, work quotas for racial minorities. There is an ancient dividing line here, between the libertarian 'land of the free' and the parallel America of devout, white, conservative Christians. But it has become deeper as the Sixties generation has risen to national leadership: one potent symbol of that change was that gay groups gave more to the Clinton campaign fund than the trade unions did.

The liberal social agenda is hated by the Republican right with as much fervour as the most politically correct Democrat applauds it. The Republicans think middle America will revolt against it - and soon. Anti-gay rights referendums are expected in a number of states. On both sides, lifestyle politics is all the rage: Judge Robert Bork, a leading conservative controversialist, is hard at work on a book whose working title, Slouching towards Gomorrah, gives some indication of his approach.

The arguments will be fought out not only on the campuses but in Congress and the Supreme Court, where several conservative justices are rumoured to be retiring shortly. There are old battles to be refought all the way across this legal landscape. Judge Bork, for instance, who taught both Bill and Hillary Clinton at law school, had his nomination for the Supreme Court rejected in the late Eighties. Testifying against him was, among others, Mr Clinton. Now the former law student will be nominating his own judges.

On the right, the defeat of liberal, patrician George Bush may have caused a Republican revolution by finally discrediting the party's Eastern establishment and leaving the field open to a more populist and aggressive politics. Much of what is now happening on the right is about what, precisely, that style should be.

This week a clutch of top Republicans, including Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former UN ambassador, Jack Kemp, the former housing secretary and William Bennett, the former education secretary, launched a group called Empower America. The latter two are potential presidential candidates, but their first task is to patrol the limits of Republicanism. They are worried that just as the left damaged itself by its reluctance to ban extremists, so the right must push out the protectionists and xenophobes, such as the posturing-as-redneck Mr Buchanan. The Christian fundamentalist right is also treated with deep caution. This being American politics, where everything is slightly too good to be true, the associate director of the group is a former Perot aide called Orson Swindle.

More seriously, it has a clutch of the Republicans' brightest young things and there is some talk that Empower America should reverse the usual situation after a defeat, which is that the losers quit Washington and go back to their states to sulk. Instead, it would become something unheard of in US politics - a semi-permanent opposition. This may be bad news for Mr Clinton, but the rest of us can sit back and enjoy the fun: Washington politics over the next few years is going to sizzle.