WASHINGTON — Time to talk taxes.

Where else could congressional Republicans possibly find refuge?

Not in talking about Iraq. Not, in the aftermath of the Mark Foley scandal, in gay-bashing. Perhaps not even in the Medicare prescription drug program, since millions of elderly beneficiaries are now smack in the middle of the “doughnut hole” that keeps them paying monthly premiums while they receive no coverage until they spend thousands in out-of-pocket costs for medicine.

So it’s back to basics. Or, as President Bush crisply puts it, “The Democrats will raise taxes. … They’re going to raise them on whoever they can raise them on.”

It’s true that Democrats have made their distaste for the Bush tax cuts well known. In particular, they think it would be a breathtaking folly — another one, that is — to extend the cuts beyond their current expiration dates. Making permanent the tax cuts enacted since 2001 would have a direct cost of $2.8 trillion over the next decade. Adding interest costs on the ballooning national debt puts the price tag at $3.3 trillion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank that relies on data from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. This is about three times what it would take to fix the entire 75-year shortfall in Social Security that the president has said he’s so concerned about.

It’s also true that congressional Democrats, as part of their rather mundane list of things-we’ll-do-if-we-take-over, would move to restore the pay-as-you-go budgeting rules that have long since lapsed. The unraveling of this fiscal straitjacket — which requires lawmakers to offset any new spending or tax cuts with equivalent spending cuts or tax hikes — is what gave the White House and Republicans in Congress the freedom to have their runaway tax cuts and their runaway spending, too.

One result is that we’re now waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and putting the tab on a credit card. The $432 billion appropriated for these two conflicts since 2001 will be due one day — paid for by future taxpayers who will be living in a world that will be gripped, no doubt, by new and different threats. So, if some Democratic candidate for Congress stood up somewhere and said: “Yes, I think there should be a tax hike to pay for these wars so that the children of the veterans and the orphans of those who’ve fallen aren’t burdened with our unpaid bills,” would a Republican opponent attack? Probably.

As a group, Republicans take great comfort in knowing they haven’t been forced to choose. They’ve enacted a vast new Medicare benefit but they’ve not been forced to cut other programs or raise anyone’s taxes to pay for it. They’ve handed the Pentagon everything it desires, and not groused much at the obscene waste uncovered in audits of the reconstruction boondoggle in Iraq. It is always Christmas for someone on Capitol Hill, whether it’s big energy companies extracting this or that tax break or brazen lobbyists who write their industries a check by literally writing self-dealing language into legislation.

Somewhere along the line, though, the public seems to have become queasy. The average person can’t comprehend why we can lavish billions of tax benefits on stock investors, but can’t build levees to protect New Orleans. No one can quite figure out why we still have to shed our shoes at the airport, when we still haven’t come up with the money to inspect checked luggage for bombs.

The public understands that to govern is to choose. The White House and its Republican helpmates thought they could slip out from under this maxim, and for a while they did. One reason they return now to the tried and true theme about tax-raising Democrats is that they know congressional Democrats will, if they take control, force some hard choices. And given a choice between protecting millionaires and protecting Medicare, which side would the public choose?

This really is the fundamental problem confronting Republicans as the Nov. 7 elections approach. It is not just that they’ve governed badly, endorsing without much inquiry just about any wrongheaded White House initiative. It’s that they’ve refused to make choices — to govern — at all.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.

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