Obama Lays a Trap for Eventual GOP Nominee

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Next year’s election is shaping up as another ideological struggle between right and left, a situation President Obama is working overtime to avoid.

Some of the president’s supporters are disappointed that he has not laid out a big and bold agenda for the second half of his term and is instead focused on advancing and implementing the work he has already begun. After two years of towering ambitions, Obama is offering a 25-year plan for high-speed rail and some tax-code simplifications. Audacity has given way to incrementalism.

Part of this is practical. The Democratic supermajorities of his first two years have been replaced by arguably the most conservative House since the Coolidge Republicans and the Senate is more evenly divided.

But another part is political calculation. Obama is not looking for 2012 to be an ideological clash but rather a debate over details.

Democrats did so poorly in 2010 because the election was a national referendum on Obama’s agenda in the first two years. It was all bold strokes and black and white choices – “Repeal and replace” versus Obamacare, small government versus big government; Tea Party versus Washington.

In a right-of-center nation, a debate framed along those lines will always favor the Republicans. Add in the nation’s long-term economic anemia and you get the recipe for Democrats losing 63 House seats.

Remember the oft-repeated complaint of a decade ago that there wasn’t much difference between Republicans and Democrats? George W. Bush and Al Gore were debating which kind of Social Security reform would be best and the exact dimensions of the “lockbox.”

There may have been deep ideological differences between Bush and Gore, but neither cast the election as some epochal question on the fate of the nation or the direction of the government. At a time of peace and prosperity, they nibbled around the edges of some big issues, but mostly treated the contest like the Pepsi challenge – “Surprise, you picked the Republican!”

You certainly can’t say the same things today.

Democrats have moved sharply to the left. Opposition to the Iraq war empowered Obama’s liberal wing of the party and his 2008 victory cemented those gains. Meanwhile, Republicans have gone through a harsh ideological scouring during their swift descent into minority status.

And for a backdrop, you have economic anxiety at home and a war with radical Islamists abroad. Stark choices and high stakes: As a former president born 100 years ago this week might have said, “A time for choosing.”

The two major parties haven’t offered such sharply different visions for the nation since the 1980s, and that’s not where an incumbent liberal president wants to be.

That’s why the president is trying to bring the roiling boil of political debate in the nation down to a gentle simmer. Credulous reporters have misidentified this as a move to the center, but it is really a change in message.

Obama did compromise with Republicans on extending the current tax rates, which was a substantive move and a reversal of years of rhetoric. But even the most liberal Democrats admitted that some deal was inevitable. They just wanted Obama to fight harder for the same result. And what’s the sense in that?

As Obama told Bill O’Reilly on Sunday, he’s the same guy.

Of course, how successful he is moving the debate to the mushy middle depends on whom Obama draws in a Republican opponent and what’s driving the conversation in 18 months’ time.

Politics is like shooting quail. You can’t shoot at the bird. You have to shoot where you think the bird is going to be next.

What makes a politician truly gifted isn’t knowing what people want to hear – any dumb lummox with a focus group and a campaign consultant can do that. The key is knowing what people are going to want to hear next.

With Republican voters fresh off a midterm triumph and pronouncements of conservative purity ringing through banquet halls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, it seems certain that any nominee the 2012 GOP primary process produces will be a down-the-line conservative.

But Obama, with the help of the political press corps, will be always nudging the Republican nominee to debate the subtle shades of tax reshuffling or whether to appoint another panel on deficit reduction or how much money should be spent on high-speed rail or whether page 1,645 of the president’s health-care law should be rewritten to forbid non-reimbursable co-payments on acupuncture treatments for pets.

It will be very tempting for the Republican to go along, because not only would it produce appreciative gurgles from the Washington elite, but the other road will be very perilous. Talking about repealing Obama’s health-care law, scrapping his financial regulations and slashing spending will invite labels like “radical” and “extreme.”

And while every Republican who would be president yearns to be the next Ronald Reagan – an idealist who inspires a nation – they all fear of becoming the next Barry Goldwater – an idealist who loses 44 states.

Chris Stirewalt is FOX News’ digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.