Candidates Rush to the Center

Last week's Republican debate in Manchester, N.H., was notable for its lack of fireworks. There was some effort to take on Gov. George W. Bush, who finally agreed to join these events. He and his chief competitor in the New Hampshire primary, Sen. John McCain, were remarkably gentle with each other.

This fits a now-established pattern in American politics, dictated by two factors: The importance of TV image-building, especially the avoidance of gaffes that can cement a negative image; and the need to never stray too far from the political center, because that's where most votes will be won come November.

Of course, this is still the primary season (actually, it's still the pre-primary season) with some candidates aboard who scorn centrism. So former ambassador Alan Keyes and conservative activist Gary Bauer fired their shots about such issues as abortion and doing away with the income tax. But Mr. Bush's more mainstream tax-cut proposal, offering something for everyone, clearly angles for votes beyond the GOP faithful. As does Mr. McCain's theme of restoring Americans' faith in their government.

Centrist politics were made into an art form this decade by a Democrat - Bill Clinton. His very effective campaigns rode on an intellectual framework crafted by the New Democrat movement within his party. New Democrats talk smaller, more efficient government, clear accountability in matters like education, and welfare reform. Republicans suspect them of trying to co-opt their agenda.

In a backhanded compliment of sorts, New Democrats - whose current standard-bearer is Vice President Al Gore - now worry that Bush's "compassionate conservatism" is designed to do the same thing to them.

What this portends, first, is that candidates who really want to win in a time of great prosperity will do everything they can to identify with the vast, relatively satisfied swath of voters. Second, it could mean a fairly subdued campaign, with only occasional frantic efforts to take advantage of issues that divide Americans.

To fend off the yawns, serious thought should be given to the suggestion made last Thursday by Sen. Orrin Hatch: Why not hold Lincoln-Douglas-style debates, with candidates engaged in vigorous give and take, instead of the stilted, media-fed format that has become standard?

That might force candidates to come up with new ideas that advance the nation rather than just play safe with the middle ground.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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