Torture and assault charges have been filed by US prosecutors against two men suspected of beating an Australian tourist and throwing him into a burning fire pit on a Californian beach. Robert Schneider was found in the surfside pit in Ocean Beach with third-degree burns on February 27 … San Diego locals Carl Gregory and Roseann Iovine announced plans to host an “Australian barbeque” on April 13 to support Mr Schneider’s recovery.

San Diego Union Tribune, today.

It was never a real entity, simply a coalition of separate fiefdoms jammed together out of common interest. Unwieldy, host to demagogues and local machines, fond of useless wars, by 2004 it looked like it would split apart altogether before a recent surge gave some people cause for hope. Now that is disappearing too. What does the future hold for these people, that some call the Democrats?

Far more is at stake in November than the mere matter of who runs the biggest armed forces in the world. Loss by the Democrats – which, if current numbers stayed as they are, would be a slam-dunk – would have to be a decisive crisis for the party.

By common consent Dubya is in the running for one of the coveted bottom three slots in the “worst presidents ever” stakes. The wooden spoon usually goes to Warren G Harding, eased into the nomination by party machines during a deadlocked convention. Of his scandal-plagued administration someone remarked “he was unfit for the office and he never should have been there”, that someone being Warren G Harding.

Union general Ulysses S Grant is the Carlton of the list, always bobbing somewhere round the bottom three for basically being a burnt-out alky through a crucial era of reconstruction. Nixon is usually in the bottom five of meta-lists, an average of getting in the top ten on right wing lists and below bottom on liberal ones. Carter used to limbo pretty low, but has been rising like a navy diver as those whacky ideas like energy self-sufficiency, and not backing every murderous brigand who calls themselves a freedom fighter, start to be re-examined.

Frustration and political emnity usually get the incumbent called the “worst ever” by someone. But this time it looks like the real deal. The neat way in which the W. Bush era’s incompetence comes together as a neat package is pretty extraordinary. Cutting taxes while embarking on a war which you then utterly mismanage, cocking a snoot at the rest of the world while it buys up your finance capital, demonstrating dysfunctional cronyism in a straightforward national emergency and then deregulating your way to a full-force money-market meltdown… if Dubya isn’t a North Korean agent, he should retroactively invoice.

Harding gets the wooden spoon not only for the “teapot dome” scandal, which exposed his cabinet as a group of corrupt profiteers, but for a rep as a “do-nothing” President. In fact his administration reorganised government accounting into its modern form, established the Veterans Affairs department, released WW1 protestors from jail, and sent food-aid to the USSR during the post-civil-war famine of 1921. Match Teapot Dome with Halliburton, and Harding still has a clear lead. During his short reign, the US consolidated its postwar prosperity and the jazz age boom took off.

Other presidents have authored disastrous wars (LBJ), been mired in scandal (Nixon), dropped the ball during an emergency (Hoover), let the country drift towards destruction (Pierce), given evidence of physical damage to the language areas of the brain (Reagan) or hugged a giant rabbit (Harvey), but they all had something — something – on the assets side of the ledger. Bush has nada, nil, zip. In terms of achievements he’s running neck-and-neck with Harrison whose claim to fame was catching pneumonia at his inauguration and dying a month later.

Yet with all that, with all that, the Republican contender for the nomination, a man who, whatever his personal virtues, promises a substantial continuity with what has gone before, is now the heir presumptive to the presidency. Leading both Democrat contenders as preferred president – and now leading Obama by, by some measures, up to ten per cent – McCain is also benefitting from the worst possible finding for the Democrats – that up to 20% of Obama supporters and 30% of Hillary supporters would consider switching their vote if their candidate doesn’t get the nod.

How to make sense of that figure? Well, first off a degree of domestic fury has to be factored in. Running away with the Republicans is a bit like threatening to run off with the waitress/shoestore-salesman-who’s writing-a-novel, and start over with a Subway franchise in rural Ohio, like they do in the sitcoms. The figure is at least partly bouyed by people letting their fantasy of revenge off the leash – it’s pretty rare that the commemorative Franklin Mint John Wayne collection gets put down the garbage crusher, still less that the cat is left by the highway exit, but if no-one talked the possibility out, the “couple attack each other with K-Tel knives-like-the-chefs-use set” stories would crowd out the garage sale announcements in the local rag.

But exactly how much of this is sheer rage, and how much would come to pass is a trickier question. The three candidates are less a left-right split than a set of overlapping circles. One tranche of Hillary’s support, sorry to say, simply won’t back the black guy. A smaller group of Obama male supporters won’t back the chick. Beyond that, another section of Hillaryites won’t back anyone white, black or – as it happens – beige, who sits in a church being lectured to by a priest who sounds like a one-man convention of Black Panthers and 911 Truthers. And a final section of Obama supporters see both Obama and McCain as representatives of a new politics with more in common than divides them – and an alternative to the duplicity of war-hero Hillary, dodging sniper bullets from the air.

This deep emnity between the camps of two figures WITH IDENTICAL PROGRAMMES is a direct result of the primary system, a marvellously inclusive process capable of delivering direct democracy, so long as people can maintain a modicum of common sense and perspective.

Now read the quote at the top of the story again.

Should, as the odds now suggest, the Democrats go down in November, a degree of thorough modernisation of the party will be inevitable. Indeed much of this will be restoration of nineteenth century features – a greater centralisation of power for the party to project a unity of purpose, a less open candidate selection process such as obtained before the primary system took off. Surely they must. Surely they can’t drift on with entrenched interests and archaic procedures damning them for another two or three elections can they? Any moment of smug superiority in that sense is tempered by imagining a Labor supporter saying it in 1961. (Hillary Rodham, you are magnificent!)

And by the memory that, the first thing the good people of Charters, Queensland did in the wake of the hideous backpacker fire there, was hold a sausage sizzle for the survivors.

Or as the Desiderata* put it, the one thing you can’t see is your own arsehole and God surely meant it that way.

*Bootleg version.