Tonight, a great annual rite of American politics will be enacted. "The President of the United States," a stentorian voice will boom to the assembled senators, congressmen and other dignitaries at 9pm or thereabouts. And the elected leader of theworld's most powerful country will make his way slowly down a crowded aisle of the House of Representatives, shaking every hand in sight, to deliver the message on the "State of the Union", which the constitution prescribes. Outwardly nothing will be very different. True, a Democratic president will be addressing a predominantly Republican audience - but how often in the recent past has a Republican president appeared before a Congress controlled by the other party. If advance publicity is any guide, Bill Clinton will be dispensing compromise and goodwill. He will be applauded, even cheered, by friend and foe. This 104th Congress may be acquiring sharper partisan tones by the day. But tonight even Newt Gingrich, perched behind the rostrum where Mr Clinton will speak, may be wreathed in smiles. As well the Speaker might. For beneath this most civilised of occasions lurks an unpalatable truth for this President - that he may be a fleeting Democratic intermezzo in a Republican symphony lasting comfortably into the next millenium.
Halfway through his term, the proximate reasons for Mr Clinton's unpopularity are well known. There is Whitewater, the allegations of marital infidelity, and Paula Jones's demeaning sexual harrassment lawsuit. He appears to have few guiding principles, and a political spine made less of steel than semolina. Not least, he has neglected the "monarchical" side of his job. Small wonder so many write him off. In truth, any Democrat, even with none of the "character" flaws of Mr Clinton, would probably be in trouble today, for three very good reasons.
Consider, first of all, his mandate. Mr Clinton may have won handsomely in the electoral college in 1992. But he received just 43 per cent of the popular vote. The road to victory was opened by Ross Perot, a third party candidate stronger than any in 80 years, who took votes from a sitting president across the entire country. George Bush, that sitting Republican, furthermore, ran a campaign of quite spectacular ineptitude. Mr Perot's impact may be judged from last November's exit polls, showing that of his supporters in 1992, two out of three this time voted Republican.
So to the second point. Ross Perot masked the continuing rightward march of the American electorate, a process which began with that most despised but most acute of modern American politicians, Richard Nixon. His victory in 1968 was the death knell for the liberalism which had been the country's dominant political ideology since the advent of Franklin Roosevelt 36 years earlier. Between 1968 and 1992, the Democrats held the White House for just four years.
If anything, the march continues. Hardly a social and political trend does not militate in favour of the Republicans: the growth of the intrinsically conservative suburbs, the ageing of the population, the ever growing influence of the religious right. The Democrats are identified with the old: unions, minorities, intrusive and ever expanding government, and - of course - liberalism. No matter that "re-inventing government" was a Clinton/Gore invention, and that the 1993 budget package was the most serious effort in decades by any US President to reduce the federal deficit. In politics, perception is everything.
Tax and spending cuts, the demand to "get government off our backs" parrotted by a thousand talk radio hosts and refined into elegant policy proposals by the conservative think-tanks that hold ideological sway in Washington - these are naturally Republican issues. Correcting that impression may be beyond the reach of even a political Proteus like Bill Clinton, whose much criticised tendency to be all things to all men is in large measure a requirement imposed on him by the divisions within the party he leads. Daily, "New Democrat" moderates warn him that excessive attention to traditional "left-wing" Democratic constituencies, like blacks, minorities and organised labour, will forfeit the centre without which - in America as everywhere else - electionscannot be won.
But the opposite peril is hardly smaller. Too sharp a shift to the right might simply leave the Democrats looking like a retread of their rivals. Why choose ersatz Republicanism, when the real thing is so readily available? Such are the competing wings of the modern Democratic party. The problem is not new, but in terms of constructing majorities in the White House and Congress, the solution was once offered by history. It was a Republican president who crushed slavery and the old Confederacy, and for more than a century the South never forgave Abraham Lincoln and his heirs. Thus the curious coalition which underpinned the Democrats between 1932 and 1968, between northern "progressives" and a diehard, conservative, and largely racist white South.
But the civil rights legislation of Lyndon Johnson changed everything. Southern Democrats considered themselves betrayed by one of their own. The first reaction was to turn to an independent, regional candidate in the person of George Wallace. In 1968 hewon a few states. But Nixon the consummate strategist had begun to convince southern whites that their long-term interests lay with the Republicans. In the process he did the groundwork for a Republican takeover of the South - the third big handicap facing Bill Clinton and the Democrats.
Demographic change, fuelled by immigration and an internal migration to the Sun Belt, means the electoral importance of the 11 states of the Confederacy can only grow. Already they account for 27 per cent of the electoral college vote; last year, in a statistical change which speaks social history, Texas overtook New York to become the second most populous state in the Union behind California. Last year, Capitol Hill finally caught up with the realities of a quarter century of presidential politics. Forthe first time since Reconstruction, the South sent a majority of Republicans to the House of Representatives - and the Democrats lost Congress for the first time in 40 years. It is hard to see that trend being quickly reversed. Hence the massive inbuilt advantage for Republicans, not just in the contest for the White House, but for control of the legislature. If it is true (as it may well be) that the US, rid of the Soviet challenge and obsessed with domestic problems, is entering a period of "parliamentary" government where Congress is pre-eminent, then the implications for the Democrats are doubly disturbing.
Such is the challenge facing Mr Clinton and his party. In the longer run, the removal of the Southern distortion from the American electoral equation could be a blessing. The contradiction in the Democratic midst will be gone, the party will become more homogenous - who knows, even more united. Political divisions in the US might be more straightforward, between a left of centre and a right of centre party; the Democrats would have less need of a Proteus.
But that is a distant prospect, and small consolation for Mr Clinton tonight as he presents his vision of America at the dawn of the 21st century.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies