Even before senator John Kerry's sweep of primaries on March 2 - Super Tuesday - made him the presumptive Democratic nominee, Bush trailed him in every national poll. Faltering on the economic and national security fronts, Bush opened another war: the culture war.
Bush had campaigned in 2000 as a "compassionate conservative", softening his edges and separating himself from the hard right. As it was, he lost the popular vote by more than half a million. Now he has decided he has no choice but to chase his base.
The launch of his Kulturkampf has been a blitzkrieg. Bush proposed a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. He dismissed two scientists who dissented on his bioethics board, which he has used to ban forms of stem cell research, replacing them with adherents of the religious right. Bush made a recess appointment of William Pryor of Alabama as a federal judge, blocked in the Senate for his extremism. Pryor had said that "abortion is murder" and supported the building of an altar of the 10 commandments in a courthouse. Then the attorney general, John Ashcroft, subpoenaed the medical records of women who have had abortions at planned parenthood clinics.
Bush followed by supporting the unborn victims of violence bill, creating a new federal crime of foetal homicide that passed the Republican-dominated House of Representatives on February 26. At Bush's order, the Senate is being transformed into a battlefield of the culture war.
But Bush's instigation of religious wars in America, while it mobilizes the evangelical Protestant faithful, is also unexpectedly thwarting him. The born-again Bush, who reconstructed his self-image after 9/11 as a messianic leader, assumed that the agendas of the neocons and the theocons were one and the same. However, Bush outsourced his foreign policy on the Middle East and Israel to the neocons in part for an electoral purpose, hoping to capture the Jewish vote, which will not be fulfilled because of his anxious devotion to the theocons.
The neocons and the theocons were bound together in reaction against the 1960s for different reasons: the neocons by foreign policy, the theocons by their continuing fundamentalist revolt against modernity. Under Ronald Reagan, this coalition was held together in the crusade against godless communism. But George Bush is haunted by what happened next to his father.
The elder Bush won 35% of the Jewish vote in 1988, but only 11% in 1992. He had paid the price for his toughness in forcing the Likud government of Israel into the peace process that was continued by President Clinton. In 2000, the younger Bush won 19% of the Jewish vote. Fearful of repeating his father's fall, he immediately abandoned the peace process.
After September 11, Bush began extensive polling of Jews. "We have a figurehead at the top of the ticket who has the potential to catalyze a realignment," said Matthew Brooks, head of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Visions of carrying the entire east coast, including New York and California, and holding Florida for ever, danced in Bush's head.
Just as Bush stokes the culture war, Mel Gibson enters, sprinkling holy gasoline on the fires. Only in the combustible atmosphere Bush has fostered could Gibson's grand guignol version of an anti-Semitic medieval passion play, The Passion of the Christ, become the number one box-office hit. This is the ultimate Mad Max escapade: blowing up the cultural contradictions of American conservatism.
With his culture war the son is echoing another political error of the father, who alienated Jews and Catholics by permitting his 1992 convention to be used as a platform for the religious evangelical right. This latest revival is frightening Jews, cautioning American Catholics (overwhelmingly of the liberal John XXIII/Vatican II persuasion, and holding the same view on abortion as other Americans), and scourging mainline Protestants. The more Bush supplicates his base, the more he repels the others. Moreover, Bush is running against a Democrat who's a modern Catholic, with lineage to the oldest mainline Protestant families of New England and Jewish ancestry.
This political miscalculation at home is far outweighed by the disastrous consequences in the Middle East. With increasing desperation, Bush is campaigning on behalf of his various fundamentalisms in a crusade against modernity in America, his greatest war of all.
· Sidney Blumenthal is former senior adviser to President Clinton and author of The Clinton Wars.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004