You see the theme repeated in liberal political cartoons, letters to the editor, campaign ads, opinion columns and candidates’ debates: The Republicans have no new ideas.

Like all political memes, this charge has enough truth in it to give it bite: The last time the GOP held the presidency and majorities in Congress, the party seemed much more interested in pork-barrel spending, the perks of office and staying in power for the sake of staying in power than it did in offering any substantial plans for dealing with our problems.

Indeed, there is a frame for describing our national politics that describes Democrats as the party of change and the GOP as the agent moderating the left’s wilder ideas to make them workable.

That frame, too, contains truth, but it needs to be filled out with some details.

For instance, Democrats have proposed and Republicans accepted most major social programs that now provide the benefits that touch all of us at some point in our lives.

The most notable of those are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and welfare, though there are many more specialized ones, ranging from agriculture subsidies to student loans to mortgage programs, and on and on nearly to infinity.

Such programs are, needless to say, popular with their recipients, because who doesn’t like to receive a check, and that has given critics a problem:

One can offer stern warnings about the future stability of such programs, but as long as the checks keep coming, it’s hard to raise concern among the voters to a level that would support addressing such long-range funding issues.

While it’s perfectly possible to describe alternate ways to address the needs for health care, retirement, care for the poor, etc., that these programs provide, those who propose such alterations (as former President George W. Bush found out in his futile effort to stir up interest in reforming Social Security) are contrasting something that doesn’t exist with something that does, always an uphill battle. Birds in the hand, and all that.

Thus, reformers find their ideas, no matter how sound, are all too easily demagogued as “taking away your benefits,” so their proposals get drowned in a chorus of boos before they are even heard.

However, things are changing. It may be true, as one Demotivators poster says, “It’s always darkest just before it turns completely black.” But our current parlous economic situation — brought about in great part by the debts incurred by the programs described above, and others added more recently that suffer from the same phantom-funding syndrome — may offer a glimmer of hope.

That is, the reformers may be able to break through the wall of denial and finally get a hearing from the electorate on the types of changes — and they must be substantial — that are needed to halt our long-standing plunge into an ocean of red ink that is being charged to our children and grandchildren.

One example of a Republican with a substantive list of ideas for reform is Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, whose “Road Map for America’s Future” (www.roadmap.republicans.budget.house.gov) is drawing enough fire from the usual left-wing suspects, such as the Times’ Paul Krugman, to make many people think he’s created something worth checking out.

Ryan’s plan — far too comprehensive to do more than summarize here — was described this way by Fred Barnes in the July 19 Weekly Standard:

“It would give everyone a refundable tax credit to buy health insurance, allow individual retirement accounts (for people under 55) to be carved out of Social Security, reduce the six income tax rates to two (10 and 25 percent), and replace the corporate tax (35 percent) with a business consumption tax (8.5 percent). And that’s not the half of it.”

As Barnes noted, Ryan, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, got the Congressional Budget Office to evaluate his plan.

The CBO concluded the Road Map “would make the Social Security and Medicare programs permanently solvent (and) lift the growing debt burden on future generations, and hold federal taxes to no more than 19 percent of GDP.”

Ryan’s changes are significant — but far more fiscally sound than the equally deep changes the Democrats have already imposed on our health care system. Those changes, along with the unfunded liabilities of existing programs, threaten trillions in deficits for decades to come. History shows, however, that conservatives can’t fight something with nothing, and Ryan’s plan offers a set of responsible core proposals that, even if modified by the political process, offer real “hope and change” for the future that moves in the opposite direction of the state-run, high-tax economy being imposed on us by the Democrats.

But even if they win back a majority in Congress just by not being Democrats, Republicans can’t assume that voters will trust them in the future.

There’s a considerable legacy of well-earned skepticism to overcome if they regain power, and the best way to win back the people’s trust is to have a solid, practical program to fix the current set of fiscal woes that threaten to overwhelm us.

As Barnes says, Democrats “can’t endorse (the Road Map) for fear of alienating their liberal base, which loathes anything that reduces the size of government.”

There’s an opportunity there. Will the GOP take it? If not, it won’t be a majority for long.

M.D. Harmon is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6482 or at:

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