Blessed are the speechmakers: listen to Bush and you hear Blair

John Rentoul

The Independent

05 September 2004

Tony Blair is campaigning for re-election on his domestic record. In a speech to a party audience last week, he said: "We are transforming our schools by raising standards and focusing on results ... By testing every child, we are identifying those who need help - and we're providing a record level of funding to get them that help ... We are making progress, and there is more to do." All right. I lied. That wasn't him, it was George Bush, accepting the nomination as the Republican candidate for the US presidency. But there was much more in Bush's speech that I could have passed off as an exclusive leak of a draft of Blair's address to the Labour Party conference at the end of this month.

Of course, you would expect Bush and Blair to use similar language to defend the war in Iraq. Thus Bush told the Republican convention: "Others understand the historic importance of our work. The terrorists know. They know that a vibrant, successful democracy at the heart of the Middle East will discredit their radical ideology of hate." Blair has already delivered that line, many times. The big difference is that when Bush praised the "courage and wise counsel" of "Prime Minister Tony Blair", he was cheered by foot-stamping delegates. If Blair tried to return the compliment in Brighton, he would be booed, hissed and whistled. But what was significant about the President's speech were the passages on domestic policy that could have been Blair's.

"Another priority in the new term will be to help workers take advantage of the expanding economy to find better, higher-paying jobs. In this time of change, many workers want to go back to school to learn different or higher-level skills. So we will ... increase funding for community colleges." There was more public spending promised when he moved on to housing policy. "Seven million more affordable homes in the next 10 years." Affordable homes is a phrase that raises my hackles; it means subsidised housing. Of course, there is a case for subsidising housing, but let's not pretend that governments can make expensive things "affordable". That ought to be axiomatic for a conservative, free-market party. But what is so surprising about Bush's programme for his four more years is how un-conservative it is. The Republican platform - the party's manifesto - has been described as the most right-wing in memory. And so it is, on social issues. But the President did not mention them.

After listening to his New Labour rhetoric of higher spending on public services, and after catching myself nodding along with parts of his case against Saddam (but not with his dismissal of post-war problems in Iraq with a mere "despite ongoing acts of violence ..."), I had to think for a full five seconds to remind myself why I want John Kerry to win. Guantanamo Bay; the crass simplifications of the war on terror; the Christian fundamentalist wing of the Bush-Cheney coalition. These electorally embarrassing relatives were locked in the attic during the convention. (But when they are let out in public, they are on their best behaviour. The absolutist intolerance of abortion has been renamed "a culture of life". Discriminating against homosexuals has become "defending marriage".)

This is crossover politics elevated to a high art. With the extremists out of sight, Bush used his big prime-time moment to reach across the centre ground. He can reach out to the left so well that he sometimes passes Blair, another supreme practitioner of the art, going in the opposite direction. It is not often that Blair sounds as left-wing as Bush did, promising to "stand with workers in poor communities" who have lost jobs.

This kind of ideological cross-dressing is the essential background to the tiff between Michael Howard and the White House. The immediate cause may have been the Tory leader's opportunistic attempt to distance himself from the Iraq war, but Blair's closing of the ideological gap made it possible. In both Britain and America, the gap between left and right is narrower than it has been for many years. Neither the Republicans nor the Tories are serious parties of small government. The right still trots out the rhetoric of the small state - sometimes with toe-curling results, as with Howard's "I believe" credo: "The people should be big. The state should be small." But it never amounted to much, even under Ronald Reagan and the blessed Margaret.

Now the gaps between the parties are smaller. Bush does even not pretend that he will shrink the size of the state; all he promises is to "restrain federal spending", with the implication that Kerry would spend more, and ignoring the question of how he would pay for his tax cuts. As Andrew Sullivan, the conservative commentator, observes: "The only difference between Republicans and Democrats now is that the Bush Republicans believe in big insolvent government and the Kerry Democrats believe in big solvent government."

Why then is the US election so polarised and the country so divided? Partly, it is the product of Henry Kissinger's dictum about student politics: it is so vicious because the stakes are so small. And partly it is because the outcome of the election looks so close. That is what you would expect if both parties efficiently seek votes in the centre ground. Paradoxically it ensures both that the policy differences between them will be small and that the competitive passions will be high.

On the evidence of the party conventions, I fear that Bush understands crossover politics better than Kerry does. A Time magazine poll carried out before the President's speech and published after it gave him an 11-point lead, the first big break in the deadlock, even before the traditional "convention bounce". A Zogby poll carried out at the same time gave Bush only a three-point lead, but it is Kerry who has to make all the running over the next two months, which include the television debates between the candidates. At least he is still on Bush's shoulder as they come round the last bend.

The excitement of the close finish is in stark contrast to sleepy tenor of politics on this side of the Atlantic. Kerry may not be as adept at crossover politics as Bush or Blair, but he is better at it than Michael Howard. The Conservatives are stumbling towards a Bushite position of being the socially conservative party of big government. Howard has accepted that the Tories have to be big spenders on health and schools. But he has yet to pull off the trick of posing as a man of the people.

And he is up against Blair, a supreme tactician of crossover politics. Hence the real reason why Bush's text could not be mistaken for a draft of the Prime Minister's conference speech: Blair told visitors to Downing Street last week that he has not started writing it yet. At this point in each of his nine previous years as Labour leader, he would have a draft text by now. This time he is so confident of his command of British politics as he enters the long campaign for a May or June election that he looks unlikely to have to break into a sweat before crossing the finishing line.