The drama of Richard Nixon's resignation 30 years ago this month has long overshadowed his political achievement. Nixon's criminal White House seemed an aberrant episode rooted in only his pathologies. But Nixon was the father of the modern Republican party.
It was Nixon who created a brand-new coalition of Southern conservatism in reaction to the civil rights movement. He absorbed the Dixiecrat followers of George C Wallace - urban ethnic Catholics and white-collar suburbanites fearful of racial turmoil and the breakdown of law and order and resentful of student protests, assertive women and the loosening of social mores; and he shifted the locus of power in the Republican party from the north-east and midwest to California, the south-west and Florida. Nixon's natural cynicism allowed him to juggle the volatile elements that gelled for Ronald Reagan.
By the time of Nixon's election in 1968, the Democratic coalition had cracked up under the stress of race and Vietnam. Now the Republican party that came to power is exhausted. It has lost political impetus. Its instability, contradictions and anachronisms have been apparent for more than a decade, since Clinton's victory in 1992.
George Bush did not make a new coalition or offer a refreshed Republicanism, despite the trope of "compassionate conservatism". He came to power as a result only of a flawed Democratic strategy in 2000, and even then he lost the popular majority and had to rely upon a skewed supreme court to install him in office. Before 9/11, after only nine months, his presidency was winding down, and he lost the Senate with the defection of a Republican. The war on terror was a substitute for old Republican anti-communism, the ultimate glue holding disparate elements together. Still, the party is coming unstuck, disintegrating in its historic base.
California, the home state of Nixon and Reagan, has disappeared from the Republican coalition. Its demographic transformations, especially the ever expanding Hispanic electorate (two-to-one Democratic), postindustrial economy and social liberalism, make it a forerunner of the future. Bush is so far behind in California that there is no campaign there whatsoever.
To win elections in general, Bush must raise his percentage of Hispanic votes from 35% in 2000 to close to 40%. But, according to a recent Democracy Corps poll, he is five points below his 2000 level and seven down in the south-west and Florida.
In Illinois, a former presidential bellwether, the Republican party has fallen off the map. In his famous 1960 victory, Kennedy won the state, with 65% in Chicago. The Chicago suburbs, two-to-one Republican as recently as 1988, have now begun to tilt Democratic (just as have the suburbs of Los Angeles). Meanwhile, the state Republican party has imploded: unable to find a credible Senate candidate against the star of the Democratic convention, Barack Obama, it has now come up with its own African-American, Alan Keyes. A screeching religious right fanatic, Keyes, who has worn a lapel pin featuring the feet of a foetus, is Jerry Falwell as played by Little Richard. Obama is beating him 67-28, undoubtedly Keyes's peak.
The turn in Michigan is, if anything, even more distressing for Republicans. West Michigan, home to Nixon's successor Gerald Ford and even today unrepresented by any Democrats in Congress, has John Kerry 12 points above Bush in a poll taken by a local TV station. This collapse is a consequence largely of the desertion of moderate Republicans repulsed by Bush's reckless economic mismanagement and neoconservative foreign policy. These moderates are overwhelmingly mainline Protestants, also offended by Bush's evangelical culture war and faith-based efforts to break down the wall of separation between church and state.
The party that Nixon built is crumbling. Bush is the candidate of canned talking points and a party whose instincts have become rote and often counterproductive. The "war president" wraps himself in the flag, but the latest code-orange terrorist alert aroused no rally-round-the-flag syndrome; instead, it raised questions about Bush's timing and handling. Rather than campaign on his record, he has challenged Kerry to justify his vote for the Iraq war resolution, and when Kerry explained his reasoning accused him of "nuance". How can Bush change the subject?
With independent voters bleeding away from him, he has taken to stumping with the maverick Republican senator John McCain, his mortal enemy. Can Bush dump Cheney without being seen as desperate and repudiating his entire term? Bush's father owed his political career to Nixon's patronage; now the son is in danger of inheriting the wind.
· Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, is Washington bureau chief of salon.com
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004