If voters are looking for stark contrasts among presidential candidates there are plenty to be found this political season. Once the nonsense that spills out on the campaign trail is dispatched to one’s mental dustbin real policy differences emerge.

In debate after debate some presidential hopefuls seem to be serious when they say they want to change things in Washington; others promise more of the same but call it change, reminiscent of that saying “a wolf came to the door, but we called it a dog.” Promises made during campaigns are not so easily kept after elections. But it should be clear that a better-run war in Iraq isn’t really change, and more tax cuts or making the Bush tax cuts permanent are a reiteration of current attitudes that hardly constitute change.

Republicans always say that “market forces” should prevail, but it is hard to see how special tax breaks for corporations, especially the energy industry, supports that policy. And giving lip service to concerns about the environment isn’t definitive policy to protect the planet going forward and is always accompanied by statements from the president that vigorous environmental regulation makes us less competitive in world markets.

Interestingly, “a new international ranking of environmental performance puts the U.S. at the bottom of 8 industrialized nations and 39th among the 149 countries on the list.” (NY Times, 1/23/08) The article goes on to say the United States is “slipping down” due to low scores with respect to “greenhouse gas emissions and a pervasive problem with smog.” Yet EPA administrator Stephen Johnson, ignored his committee and made a unilateral decision to deny California the waiver it had long enjoyed to regulate its environment, an area that suffers from ‘a pervasive problem with smog’

In the foreign-policy debate Democrats are often caught in the difficult position of wanting to end our occupation of Iraq and being accused of not supporting the troops while Republicans almost to a man insist the “surge” is working. “Let the troops win” says Senator McCain as he draws an imaginary line between staying in Iraq as a protective force and losing lives in active combat – – ignoring the fact that violence has not ended nor has political reconciliation been realized. Not to worry my friends he says the U.S. should stay for however many years it may take to (well let’s pretend) “win.”

In the meantime the president is busily working on an agreement with the Iraqi government, such as it is – – a strange deal in which our troops would defend the current leadership against “foreign and domestic” enemies. If ever there were an agreement that posited our possible involvement in a civil war or larger conflict this has to be it. “With its international mandate in Iraq set to expire in 11 months, the Bush Administration will insist that the government in Baghdad give the United States broad authority to conduct combat operations and guarantee civilian contractors specific legal protections from Iraqi law, according to administration and military officials.” (NY Times, 1/25/08) As his term comes to an end should this country be tied to a compact that has the effect of a treaty but lacks Congressional approval? Surely, our representatives must insist that any such commitment be brought before them for consideration.

In general the Republican embrace of tax cuts and less government spending is the emptiest kind of rhetoric. Consider the stimulus package devised to jump-start our ailing economy – – more tax cuts for businesses, rebates for low and middle-class families, agreed to in a bargain with Democrats that excluded both an extension of unemployment benefits and increased funding for food stamps. House Republicans had to give up on an addendum that would have extended the Bush tax cuts, and the agreement in the end was a bi-partisan affair. But it is a modest, short-term, quick-fix if it is even that since many ordinary people will spend their rebates paying bills not buying more stuff.

For the full flavor of Republican thinking with respect to the economy the president’s Economic Council Director, Keith Hennessey, provides some perspective when he says that projects to improve roads, or other infrastructure investments are too far down the road to provide the kind of stimulus needed right now. But without attention to those down-the-road elements the country will continue to slog along ignoring job-producing new ventures that would mean more to the future of the country than the tax cuts and military spending to which we have become accustomed during the Bush years.

It’s all about the future with maybe a little of something from the long-ago – – a well-conceived Works-Progress program might not be a bad place to start.