Bleak morning in America

Bush's handlers are likely to move him further to the right. Do not expect compromise or magnanimity

How I despair of this country sometimes. I predicted last summer that John Kerry would lose the election unless Bush imploded, and so it proved. Bush started to implode in the first presidential debate on 30 September, but Kerry's fate was already sealed. There was a fatal lack of urgency in the first half of his campaign from which Kerry never recovered, leaving the way clear for the ruthless Republican juggernaut to steamroller over him.

Now, too, we know how useless exit polls can be. They were never reported in the media, but by lunchtime on voting day the supposedly foolproof polls were indicating that Kerry had won. By mid-afternoon, they had predicted that Kerry would win the crucial swing states of Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio - giving him certain victory. Voting closed in most of the eastern states at seven, and by then some Democrats were already taking a Kerry victory for granted.

But the private polling of both parties was telling a different story. I was in constant touch with a friend at an exclusive election night party for Republican movers and shakers in Washington, and I passed the data from the commercial exit polls on to him. He, in turn, was constantly talking to James Baker - George Bush Sr's secretary of state and the current chief election lawyer for the Bush-Cheney campaign, who was ready to weigh in if Kerry nudged ahead.

Baker had been on a plane for the critical late-afternoon period, but he told my friend that private Republican polling still indicated a clear victory for Bush.

Then Liz Cheney, the vice-president's other daughter - not the gay one - called in from the White House, where she was watching the first election returns with her father. "Jeb says he is very happy with Florida," she reported, speaking of George W Bush's younger brother whose task as Florida governor was to deliver his state's crucial 27 electoral college votes to the Bush-Cheney campaign. There was simultaneous news that Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic minority leader, had been ousted in his home state of South Dakota - and that my friend Mel Martinez had beaten his Democratic opponent in Florida to pick up another crucial Senate seat for the Republicans.

All of which means that the huge turn-out of voters across the country, which left Kerry supporters very hopeful that they had clinched it, was not enough. I left my house shortly after seven on Tuesday morning, and saw the longest line of voters that I had ever seen, in this or any other country: the queue started at the polling station on 31st Street, snaking round the corner into Dumbarton Street and stretching hundreds of yards towards Wisconsin Avenue. It was taking two hours to vote at that time, and even by mid-morning the wait was still 40 minutes - and Washington, with its three electoral college votes, was more assured for Kerry than anywhere else. Further afield, the streets of DC were as empty as they are on a Sunday morning - more proof, it seemed, that everyone was at the polls.

I duly snatched a couple of hours' sleep on Wednesday morning, getting up just in time to hear Andy Card - Bush's chief of staff - making a public 5.30am proclamation that his boss had won. Yet I knew that my Republican friends in Washington were by no means universally jubilant over the Bush victory; one even confided to me that he had voted for Kerry. The inner cabal of the Republican establishment know the real Bush as well as anybody, and some had already privately expressed to me their contempt for the 43rd US president. "He did not prepare for the first debate [in Miami on 30 September], and deserved to lose," one said. My friend, a veteran of the Reagan and Bush senior administrations who had been unexpectedly passed over by George W Bush, at least partly agreed with my theory that Bush has become emotionally unstable: "I'm not so sure he's unstable, but he's definitely not up to the job," he said.

So how did Bush do it? The truth is that his handlers choreographed a very successful campaign for him. They allowed him to speak only at strictly controlled, ticket-only rallies - with the result that the mass of TV viewers repeatedly saw him being cheered and whooped, apparently by wildly enthusiastic hordes of voters. He was not allowed to stray from scripts that were provided for him. He kept to empty, populist slogans that were repeated over and over again, and which gradually started to hit home outside the Beltway. The results map on Wednesday morning told it all: this was an election that was decided in the vast heartlands of America, well away from the Republican old guard who feel decidedly less sanguine about Bush.

What really sealed the election for Bush, though, was the venal "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" onslaught that dominated the campaign way back in the dog days of August. It was funded by Bush supporters in Texas, and by discrediting Kerry's record in Vietnam it succeeded in raising doubts about his character. Not one of the Vietnam veterans it featured had actually served with Kerry, but that did not stop them from claiming to know what had happened. Those who served on Kerry's swift boat testified to his heroism in winning three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star, but the innuendos of the Bush camp had inflicted the necessary damage.

I am told that Kerry thought their claims were too far-fetched to be taken seriously, but by hesitating in those early days he made a fatal mistake. He chose to be filmed wind-surfing in Nantucket, apparently without a care in the world, instead. He overestimated the ability of the American electorate to sift fact from fiction, and voters swallowed the lies hook, line and sinker. The Bush-Cheney campaign went on to wage a stupendously dishonest campaign, appropriating the tragedies of 11 September 2001 as their own exclusive property; Cheney repeated again and again that there would be more terrorist attacks on the country, and that Kerry could not be trusted to defend Americans. The Bush-Cheney campaign succeeded in painting Kerry as an elitist flip-flopper who was incapable of taking firm, coherent positions - exactly the same charges they levelled successfully against Al Gore in 2000.

By Wednesday morning, though, the recriminations within the Democratic Party had already begun. It was not just the presidency that had been won by Republicans; those victories in Florida and South Dakota also sealed safe Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate. The Democrats failed to win over blue-collar voters who traditionally vote Democrat, and the Republicans succeeded in becoming the accepted party of family values. This means that the Democrats are now faced with the task of regrouping and rethinking, if they are ever to have a hope of winning another nationwide US election; their first problem is that they have no equivalent of Karl Rove, the diabolically clever Republican strategist who has masterminded Bush's entire political career.

We can now expect Hillary Clinton to try to rise like a phoenix from the Democratic ashes by seeking the party's nomination for 2008. I suspect her main rivals will be John Edwards - who was not particularly successful as Kerry's running mate - and Barack Obama, who won resoundingly in the Senate race in Illinois and who is the first African-American superstar to emerge nationally. A Clinton-Obama ticket would grab the imagination of party activists and help to rejuvenate flagging morale - but the pair would face a formidable, uphill task in countering the ever-powerful Republican machine.

There is a good chance, I fear, that Bush's inner coterie will now push him even further to the right by claiming that they have received a mandate to do so from the American people. Indeed, I said here a fortnight ago that whoever became the occupant of the White House for the next four years would have the ability to shape American social mores for decades to come by choosing as many as four Supreme Court justices. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is 80, duly entered hospital to undergo surgery for thyroid cancer; he said he would attend the Court's session last Monday but failed to do so. I gather that he is suffering from a particularly ferocious form of cancer, and is not expected to live more than a year.

"President Bush decided to give Senator Kerry the respect of more time to reflect on the results of this election," Card said on Wednesday morning. In other words, Kerry could be left to stew about Bush's glorious victory. He will now return to his inglorious career as the junior Democratic senator from Massachusetts, in what I suspect will be a lonely and uncomfortable exile. I do not expect compromise or magnanimity from the White House; we can live in hope, but that is simply not the style of the Republican hawks now firmly in control of the US president. I have never despaired more of this country than I did on Wednesday morning - and I fear it will now get even worse.