Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 | 2:01 a.m.
There are two things I’ll predict about Tuesday’s election: One is that the United States’ biggest voting bloc — the center-right/center-left — will win; the other is that there’s going to be a big civil war within the Republican Party and a small civil war within the Democratic Party starting the day after the election, as they’re each forced to accommodate this center-left/center-right victory.
By now, it should be obvious how much the U.S. is a center-right/center-left country and how much this center — not the extremes — has dominated this election. If Mitt Romney wins Tuesday, it would be because he moved from the far-right, tea party-dictated nonsense that he used to win the GOP primary to the center-right. Had Romney not “rebranded” himself a centrist Republican in the last month, this election would have been over long ago in President Barack Obama’s favor. Conversely, had Romney run as an authentic center-right former Republican governor of Massachusetts from the start, this election might long ago have been over in his favor. Had Obama, though, embraced the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan and run from the center from the start, Romney would have been locked out on the fringes long ago and never been able to pull off his “born again” move to moderation. Obama may still squeak by, though, by stressing his “balanced” approach to lowering the deficit and pragmatic foreign policy, while downplaying his more leftward initiatives like health care.
The reason the center-left/center-right bloc is dominating this election is because it intuitively knows that the only way our country can progress is with some grand bargains forged at the center. One is a package deal that slows entitlement and defense spending, raises taxes, invests in infrastructure, education and research and institutes tax reforms that unleash more entrepreneurship — all in the right sequence and scale — so the economy is nursed back to health. Another is a deal on immigration reform. And a third is a deal that opens the way to exploit our newfound bounty of natural gas, but with a plan that is environmentally sound and doesn’t divert us from our long-term goal of a clean-energy economy that mitigates climate change.
If Romney wins, it would be because the center-right/center-left concluded that he would approach these grand bargains with the moderate Republican instincts and willingness to compromise that he has been either faking or sincerely projecting in the last month — and would be able to impose that moderation on his party. If Obama wins, it would be because the center-right/center-left concluded that he has been trying to govern from the center, has made progress, but has also been obstructed by GOP hard-liners, and they wanted to give him more time.
A lot has been written lately about how, given these two options, we’d be better off going with Romney, because he supposedly can control the crazies in his party to deliver his side of these grand bargains — but, by sticking with Obama, we’d only get more gridlock. I don’t buy that for two reasons. First, it would be saying that since Republicans on the far-right managed to obstruct Obama on many fronts, and held the economy hostage, we should let them rule because otherwise they’d do it again. That would only invite Democrats to behave the same way, which would leave us nowhere.
I also don’t buy it because I think the GOP has gone so much farther to the right than the Democrats have gone to the left. I do not trust that Romney will be able to tame the radical GOP base without making concessions to it on the environment, the Supreme Court and foreign policy that are not in the nation’s long-term interest.
I think the best thing for the country today would be if the Republicans lost the presidency twice in a row, the way the Democrats did under Ronald Reagan, and then had to undergo the same kind of rethinking and reformation that Democrats did under Bill Clinton, which moved their party solidly into the center-left. Parties learn from defeat, not from victory — especially two defeats in a row.
Granted, the morning after an election defeat, angry GOP hard-liners would surely vow to obstruct Obama more than ever. I’m not afraid. Because the morning after the morning after, GOP governors, mayors and business leaders would see where the country really is and finally do what needs to be done: either crush or separate themselves from a radical base that has forced Republican candidates into a war against math, physics, biology, Hispanics and gays and lesbians — all at the same time.
Their party has no future if it constantly has to cater to or disguise that narrow base. And the country’s future is hampered if we don’t have a responsible center-right conservative party, offering market-based solutions and a spirit of compromise to solve our biggest problems — not a radical right-libertarian-tea party coalition that is leading the GOP around by the nose, purging unbelievers and signing loyalty pledges to self-appointed conservative ayatollahs.
A truly center-right GOP would force the Democrats to have their own civil war — the center-left versus the rest — largely over tax/entitlement reform and defense spending. Obama has never fully tested where the Democratic base is on these issues, but that’s coming. The Democratic civil war will encompass fewer issues than the GOP’s, but it will be intense and unavoidable — if we are to forge the Grand Bargains that the center-right/center-left majority clearly wants and the country clearly needs.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.