Viewers of the 2012 debates have witnessed an extraordinary turnaround. John Stuart Mill famously spoke of “a party of order and stability, and a party of progress or reform.” Once upon a time, Barack Obama and Joe Biden could claim the mantle of change and progress. But the televised exchanges between Mitt Romney and Obama and Paul Ryan and Biden have revealed that this is no longer the case.

The Republicans are now the ones offering ideas of progress or reform, while the Democrats fiercely fight to protect the established order of entitlements, tax hikes, and obeisance to unions, greens, and feminists. Even when Obama and Biden have been highly caffeinated, they have not stated their plans and goals for a second term. They are too busy painting a socialist-realist mural of Romney and Ryan as maniacal reactionaries. They are too preoccupied with protecting subsidies for Big Bird, Planned Parenthood, and windmills.

Four years ago, President Obama and Vice President Biden were bursting with plans. Obama said he would cut the deficit, middle-class taxes, and health care premiums, while also creating a new entitlement to health insurance. He said he’d revamp America’s energy, education, and immigration policies for the 21st century. He delivered a speech in the early months of his term saying he’d put America on a “new foundation.” His 2011 State of the Union address was devoted to “winning the future.”

But all of these big dreams have crashed against the granite wall of reality. The deficit is up, the price of fuel and health care premiums has increased, incomes are down, and tax increases loom. Obama is exhausted. His political capital is spent. The boldest proposal he’s put forward recently is hiring another 100,000 teachers. That doesn’t even rise to the level of small-ball. It’s mini-golf.

The Republicans are playing a big-boy’s game as the Democrats heckle from the sidelines. Romney wants to reform the federal tax code by lowering rates while closing loopholes and deductions. Obama says it can’t be done, and argues instead for higher rates on a smaller base. Romney wants to reform Medicare and Medicaid by introducing a premium-support system that retains traditional Medicare as an option and by block-granting monies to the states to give governors more flexibility. Obama vows to protect the existing system, even while acknowledging that health spending is out of control.

Romney wants to increase permits for oil and natural gas drilling in the Lower 48, offshore, and in Alaska; lay pipeline; and exploit cutting-edge technologies such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Obama responds desultorily that the energy picture is fine and that the government must protect, and even double down on, subsidies and loans to alt-fuel failures such as Solyndra, A123 Systems, and Abound Solar. Romney wants to repeal the unpopular, unconstitutional, and partisan health care overhaul, and replace it with measures that would spur competition and consumer choice and protect doctors from frivolous lawsuits. Obama never will agree to a repeal of his signature legislation, and likely would spend a second term implementing, protecting, enhancing, and expanding it.

It is Obama, not Romney, who is the obstacle to change. Even the liberal New Republic admits that disheartened progressives should support Obama’s reelection simply so he can block the Republicans: “Without a second term, the accomplishments of his first would evaporate.” But suppose these dubious “accomplishments” are unpopular and counterproductive (which they are). Wouldn’t we be better off if they did indeed “evaporate,” and if serious, adult, and competent measures to restore a productive and growing economy took their place?

The party of progress in a liberal democracy is the party of growth. Economic growth would reduce joblessness, increase take-home pay, generate additional revenue for the Treasury, improve the condition of the poor, and diminish the widespread sense of national anxiety and decline. Growth would act as a salve on our acrimonious, polarized, and bitter politics.

Which party stands today for growth? The record of the Democratic administration is not encouraging. Economic growth has been under 2 percent in 2011 and 2012, well below trend. Obama says the solution is for the Treasury to “invest” more, but whatever short-term benefits government spending brings are purchased at the long-term cost of debt and taxes. Besides, most of the spending Obama has in mind is not for public goods such as roads and bridges, research, and the military, but for transfer payments that finance present consumption while acting as marginal tax increases on the working poor. That is not the way to prosperity.

The Romney strategy is to spur growth through increased productivity. Simplify and reduce taxes. Cut spending and modernize entitlements to free up capital and improve the long-term fiscal picture. Expand trade, while ensuring that China is not cheating by manipulating its currency and using low-wage labor to dump goods into U.S. markets. Remove the sword of Damocles that Obamacare holds over the heads of small businesses. Boost American carbon energy production through the vigorous promotion of oil, shale, coal, and natural gas.

Joined to a spirited defense of American interests and values and constitutional principles, Romney and his Republican allies can make the case for growth, enlargement, and advance. They can detail the policies that will strengthen America’s future. They can persuade independents and swing voters that the Republicans have learned from past failures. And they can cement the GOP reputation as the party of progress and reform.

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