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The Unspoken Hard Truths

Nearly everyone has an opinion about Friday night's presidential debate in Mississippi … and that includes our senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield:

So, did you watch the debates?

Yes, I said "debates." There were two, actually: One, a sharp, crisp exchange on issues of foreign policy and national security ... and a debate on the economy that had almost nothing to do with reality.

The differences on matters international were clear. John McCain said if we'd follow Obama's opposition to the surge, we'd have left Iraq in defeat.

"If we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and adopt Senator Obama's plan, then we will have a wider war and it will make things more complicated throughout the region, including in Afghanistan," he said.

Obama said that on the big question - to go to war - he got it right.

"You said it was going to be quick and easy; you said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were - you were wrong," Obama said to McCain. "You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators - you were wrong."

This debate was at a pretty high level because the candidates were comfortable with the terrain.

But on the first debate - you know, the one that took place in the shadow of the grimmest economic climate since the Depression - what did we get?

From Senator McCain, we got an argument, larded with Senate-speak (cost-plus contracts? Continuing resolutions?) and indictments of penny-ante spending that came from McCain's Greatest Hits.

"We spent $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. I don't know if that was a criminal issue or a paternal," he said.

And from Senator Obama, we got a resolute determination to ignore moderator Jim Lehrer's plea to tell us something - anything - among Obama's promises that might have to be put aside because of the potential for financial Armageddon.

So what's really going on here? Put simply, what we are facing simply demands too much from these candidates in the way of candor.

Remember what happened to Walter Mondale when he said he'd raise our taxes? Reagan won in a landslide.

Now imagine what a candidate who was trying to level with the voters might decide to say:

Our health care costs are rising so fast that we might have to ask ourselves a tough question: why should everyone over 65, including folks with seven-figure incomes, get federally-funded health care?
Or how about:

The only way to free ourselves from our energy dependence, so costly and so dangerous, is to push the price of gasoline higher - to make alternatives to fossil fuel and the internal combustion engine attractive.

… or that we can no longer assume that we will enjoy the levels of comfort and abundance that we have assumed was our birthright for more than half a century.

There have been times when leaders have spoken to the people in such terms: Winston Churchill began one of his famous wartime speeches with a withering account of defeats on the battlefield. He assumed that only after he had spoken so bluntly would his promise of victory be credible.

Today, Churchill would have been told, "The focus groups don't like bad news."

Of course, if he'd listened, the folks in London might be speaking German today.

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