Mr Bush returns the Republicans to the centre

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The Independent Online

George W Bush stepped out confidently this week into his father's shadow. His father was famously inarticulate, yet became better at reading out the sincere sentiments of others. George W's acceptance speech showed that he can do that bit already. But the kind of sentiments still matter. American party conventions are grand, silly confections, but the symbols and the tone and the images are important because that is at least two-thirds of presidential politics.

George W Bush stepped out confidently this week into his father's shadow. His father was famously inarticulate, yet became better at reading out the sincere sentiments of others. George W's acceptance speech showed that he can do that bit already. But the kind of sentiments still matter. American party conventions are grand, silly confections, but the symbols and the tone and the images are important because that is at least two-thirds of presidential politics.

Much of George W's waffle was the familiar American political rhetoric. His father had a thousand points of light, he had the sunrise side of the mountain. His attempt to present himself as an outsider to the Washington establishment, the boy from Midland, Texas, was particularly unconvincing. What was important was that the tone was tolerant, centre-ground, "like Clinton without the punch, or Al Gore without the precision", as The New York Times put it. It did not sound like the strident voice of Newt Gingrich or the abrasive growl of Bob Dole.

The core message was of the bipartisan pursuit of equality for women and blacks and the elimination of poverty. This convergence on the centre is welcome, and ensures that the increasingly close-run contest with Al Gore does not threaten the basic settlement of the Clinton years. Thus the wilder, neo-liberal plans to abolish state welfare have been repudiated, as have the prejudices of the religious right, with the exception of a token gesture on abortion.

There remain substantive issues between Bush and Gore. Bush takes a hard line against gun control, while the main issue between the two is the durable difference between left and right on both sides of the Atlantic, namely what to do with the huge budget surplus. Bush tilts towards tax cuts, Gore towards health care for children without insurance. The choice in this election will also have practical consequences in that the next president may appoint five Supreme Court judges.

"Compassionate conservatism" may be a facile slogan, but it does mean something significant. It means that the Republican Party has turned its back on the extremism of the mid-Nineties and that the American people this November have a choice between two Clintons - with flies zipped up. Finally, the contest will come down to the character issue between two scions of the United States' hereditary political dynasties. No wonder it is looking so close.

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