In the next election cycle voters will have to decide whether they want to find new ways to address the country’s problems or pretend that the fall elections are a new wave even if they do not produce a sea change. Different faces on the Republican side support policies basically the same as the ones that have brought the country war, a troubled economy and faith-based initiatives that fail to improve the lot of the needy.

The recent Republican debate proved that the party’s candidates are specialists in one-liner applause lines that achieve the desired result but lack substance and do nothing to inform the public about what lies ahead. Fred Thompson commented, in one of his multi-faceted diatribes, that ‘you can tell the war in Iraq is going well because you read so little about in the NY Times.’ What this particular remark proved is that Thompson doesn’t read the Times but couldn’t resist an opportunity to tap into a favorite Conservative shibboleth no matter how irrelevant and untrue since not a day goes by without several in-depth reports about Iraq in the paper.

Senator McCain, for his part, grinned out at the audience in another “my friends” applause-insured line as both he and Thompson set out to demolish Ron Paul. Paul who feels the invasion of Iraq was an enormous mistake and, in general, believes the US should stop meddling in other nations’ business, had suggested that we should talk and trade with other peoples but refrain from getting involved in foreign wars and entanglements. McCain responded by saying ‘you can’t trade with Al Qaeda; all they want to trade is burkas.’ This kind of semi-jocular remark seems to be what passes for wit and statesmanship these days. And of course the good senator keeps reminding listeners that he’s been around for a long time and even fought for the country he loves so much.

Apparently McCain and Giuliani feel a need to keep referring, one to his military service, and the other to his appearance at ground Zero on 9/11. Both seem to suggest that these singular experiences qualify them in some profound way for the presidency. But they offer little in the way of new approaches to the needs of the country preferring to offer up meaningless rants about what they call Islamo-fascism to prove how tough they will be on terrorism.

And they combine their true grit with a commitment to tax cutting policies. McCain suffers from attacks by Romney and others for voting against the Bush tax cuts but only, McCain explains, because spending reductions weren’t included in the legislation. However, none of the candidates ever explains what those spending cuts might be or who would benefit from lower tax rates or an extension of the Bush tax cuts. Only Huckabee was forthright enough to explain that as governor he had to come up with sufficient revenue to fund the needs of his state, not having the luxury of running a deficit like the federal government.

With respect to the war in Iraq there is almost unanimous agreement by the Republican field that the surge has been a great success proving victory will be ours if only we stay long enough which, according to McCain, could be fifty or a hundred years and, according to the president, at least another ten years. But what was billed as an attempt to provide the Maliki government enough security to make political progress has done nothing of the sort. A War College professor claimed recently that the surge had been envisioned as either a top-down or a bottom-up effort, and the fact that regional fighters (former Sunni insurgents) were chasing Al Qaeda proved one of those options was working although such a strategy was never mentioned at the outset.

It remains to be seen of course what happens if the Sunnis we have been arming are successful in routing Al Qaeda. Will they return to their earlier mission of trying to bring down a Shiite-led parliament or perhaps turn their weapons on U.S. forces? The trouble with flying by the seat of your pants as this administration seems comfortable doing is that unforeseen consequences often impede true progress. No-one appears to have any idea what victory would look like or how, in any case, to make it happen.

One thing is certain, however, repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. The operative word of the day is “change”, in a form yet to be determined. Nineteenth-Century Senator Carl Schurz said “My country, if right to be kept right and, if wrong, to be set right.” In November it will be up to voters to make sure that the country is “set right.”