Let's try to imagine what the world would look like if President Barack Obama is re-elected.
Washington over the next four years would probably look much as it has over the last two: Mr. Obama running the White House, Republicans controlling the House and Democrats managing the Senate. We'd have had a long slog of an election before a change-hungry electorate, and we'd end up with pretty much the same cast of characters as before.
Mr. Obama would probably try to enact the agenda he laid out most clearly in his recent interview with The Des Moines Register: He said he would try to recreate the Obama-Boehner budget deal of two summers ago, with $2.50 of spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. Then he'd try immigration reform. Then he'd cut corporate tax rates as part of corporate reform. Then he'd "weed out" unnecessary regulations. All the while, he would implement Obamacare and increase funds for infrastructure. This is a moderate and sensible agenda.
The first order of business would be a budget deal, averting the fiscal cliff. Mr. Obama would go to Republicans in the Senate and say, "Look, we're stuck with each other. Let's cut a deal for the sake of the country." He would easily find 10 Republican senators willing to go along with a version of a Grand Bargain.
Then Mr. Obama would go to the House. He'd ask Eric Cantor, the majority leader, if there were votes for such a deal. The answer would probably be no. Republican House members still have more to fear from a primary challenge from the right than from a general election challenge from the left. Mr. Obama is tremendously unpopular in their districts. By running such a negative presidential campaign, Mr. Obama has won no mandate for a Grand Bargain. Mr. Obama himself is not going to suddenly turn into a master legislative craftsman on the order of Lyndon B. Johnson.
There'd probably be a barrage of recriminations from all sides. The left and right would be consumed with ire and accusations. Legislators would work out some set of fudges and gimmicks to kick the fiscal can down the road.
The ensuing bitterness would doom any hopes for bipartisan immigration reform. The rest of the Obama second term would be about reasonably small things: some new infrastructure programs; more math and science teachers; implementing Obamacare; mounting debt; a president increasingly turning to foreign affairs in search of legacy projects.
If you're a liberal Democrat, this is an acceptable outcome. Your party spent 80 years building the current welfare state. This outcome extends it.
Now let's try to imagine the world if Mitt Romney were to win. Republicans would begin with the premise that the status quo is unsustainable. The mounting debt is ruinous. The byzantine tax and regulatory regimes are stifling innovation and growth.
Republicans would like to take the reform agenda that Republican governors have pursued in places like Indiana and take it to the national level: structural entitlement reform; fundamental tax reform. These reforms wouldn't make government unrecognizable (we'd probably end up spending 21 percent of GDP in Washington instead of about 24 percent), but they do represent a substantial shift to the right.
At the same time, Mr. Romney would probably be faced with a Democratic Senate. He would also observe the core lesson of this campaign: Conservatism loses; moderation wins. Mr. Romney's prospects began to look decent only when he shifted to the center. A President Romney would look at the way Tea Party extremism had cost the GOP Senate seats in Delaware and Nevada -- and possibly Missouri and Indiana.
To get re-elected in a country with a rising minority population and a shrinking Republican coalition, Mr. Romney's shape-shifting nature would induce him to govern as a center-right moderate. To get his tax and entitlement reforms through the Democratic Senate, Mr. Romney would have to make some serious concessions: increase taxes on the rich as part of an overall reform; abandon the most draconian spending cuts in Paul Ryan's budget; reduce the size of his lavish tax-cut promises.
As President Romney made these concessions, conservatives would be in uproar. Talk-radio hosts would be the ones accusing him of Romnesia, forgetting all the promises he made in the primary season. There'd probably be a primary challenge from the right in 2016.
But Republicans in Congress would probably go along. They wouldn't want to destroy a Republican president. Mr. Romney would champion enough conservative reforms to allow some Republicans to justify their votes.
The bottom line is this: If Barack Obama wins, we'll probably get small-bore stasis; if Mitt Romney wins, we're more likely to get bipartisan reform. Mr. Romney is more of a flexible flip-flopper than Mr. Obama. He has more influence over the most intransigent element in the Washington equation House Republicans. He's more likely to get big stuff done.opinion_commentary
David Brooks is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.