Republicans are doing what they usually do after losing an election, debating the future of the party and perhaps the future of conservatism as well. A struggle between traditional conservatives and a younger group of reformers will be decisive. That's one theory. Another focuses on George W. Bush. What matters is how much of Bush's brand of conservatism is embraced by Republicans after he leaves office. Other schools of thought call for driving neoconservatives or religious conservatives or moderates or McCain-style mavericks to the sidelines. Take your pick. There's a lot to choose from.
It's a nice debate but not terribly relevant. Politics doesn't wait for debates to be resolved. It operates in the short run, which means the next year or two. And starting now, the person with the biggest role in shaping what Republicans and conservatives say and do is President Barack Obama. It may be counterintuitive, but Obama can help Republicans sort things out.
The more Obama succeeds, the better. The more of his agenda that's enacted, the more an appealing conservative Republican alternative will emerge. Or Obama may take off the table an issue that divides Republicans and hurts the party.
The top priority for Obama is the economic downturn. We know his solution because he's been talking about it for two years. It's to revive the economy from the bottom up, cutting taxes for the middle class, sending checks to the poor, and paying for new spending by raising taxes on the well-off. That includes increasing the tax rate on capital gains and dividends.
Does anyone think this will work? It was tried by the president whom Obama seems to regard as his model, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Rather than jolt the country out of the Depression, FDR prolonged the economic slump right up to World War II. He advanced the interests of organized labor over those of business. Obama would do roughly the same through card check, a minimum wage increase, and protectionism.
It's quite possible Obama may not pursue all of this agenda. He may realize recovery requires, at the very least, less hostility to business and the wealthy than he demonstrated during his campaign. But don't bet on his actually advocating tax cuts, especially of the across-the-board variety, aimed at fostering investment. That would represent a total reversal by Obama of his economic plan and cause a serious rift with his liberal followers.
But it's investment that leads to recovery. And as the recession lingers, pro-business tax cuts are bound to be seen in a fresh new light. They'd suddenly be more popular. And who does the public identify with such tax cuts? Republicans and conservatives, who will gladly remind everyone it was President Reagan's tax cuts that got us out of the 1981-82 recession.
Rejecting tax cuts, Obama may try to spend his way out of the recession. Deficit spending can help for a while. It did for FDR. But when he had to cut back, the economy worsened. Obama would have to cut back, too.
My point is this: Serious, economy-boosting tax cuts have a bright future. That is unless you think the economy will quickly be restored to health without them or that Obama might successfully blame the absence of recovery on Wall Street or business or rich folks, as FDR did. I doubt both those propositions. Obama is likeable and clever, but he's not a magician.
Like clockwork following a Republican defeat, pro-lifers are being blamed, and churchgoing pro-lifers in particular. If only the party would abandon its opposition to abortion, Republicans would win back Senate and House seats in the Northeast and upper Midwest.
This argument ignores the obvious. The Republican party has been officially pro-life since 1980 and has actively sought to limit abortions. The same Republicans who lost their seats on November 4 had won them earlier when the party was every bit as anti-abortion as it is today. Abortion didn't cause their defeat this year.
Obama can help on abortion, too: by following through on his promise to sign the Freedom of Choice Act. It would enshrine abortion on demand as the law of the land and eliminate all restrictions, including the ban of taxpayer funding for abortions. "The first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act," he told Planned Parenthood in 2007.
It's true Obama was overpromising. Signing FOCA won't be his first act as president. At the moment, it's not even a top priority for him or congressional Democrats. But given their large majorities in Congress, Democrats are likely to try to pass FOCA at some point and, if they succeed, Obama surely won't veto it.
Then, the Republican stance on abortion would become the moderate position. Democrats would have enacted, or tried to anyway, the most extreme of pro-abortion positions. By stressing modest limits on abortion favored overwhelmingly by the public, Republicans would have the popular position.
On immigration, Obama could help simply by adopting what he and most Democrats already favor, namely granting the 12 million illegals now in America some sort of permanent legal status. This is also the position of John McCain and President Bush and, for what it's worth, myself.
Many Republicans oppose amnesty legislation. But they'd be better off if it passed. On their own, Republicans have been unable to resolve their deep and politically harmful disagreement on immigration, and there's no compromise on the horizon. Having Obama and Democrats enact a comprehensive immigration bill would resolve the dispute and allow the issue to fade. Republicans could move on.
Should we really expect Obama to provide this much aid and comfort to Republicans? Maybe not. But he's never bucked any of the liberal special interests. In fact, his stated agenda coincides exactly with theirs. All Republicans need is for Obama to keep his promises.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.