Fineman: Obama, McCain: Come Clean on the Economy

You can't blame Tom Brokaw for trying. In the second presidential debate, he asked Barack Obama and John McCain an obvious question with an all-too-obvious answer: will the economy get worse before it gets better? "No," said Obama, before launching into a paean to American can-do optimism. "Depends on what we do," said McCain, who then launched into an attack on his foe. But everyone knew the real answer.

Our sinking economy would get worse. And it did. After Tuesday, the Dow fell another 10.5 percent, the Big Three Detroit automakers were near bankruptcy and the world's finance ministers were jetting to Washington in hopes of a deal to rescue the planet.

Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war. But it hasn't even made it onto the battlefield of economics in this presidential election. Asked about how the global meltdown will change their priorities, the candidates demur; asked how they will call on the American people to sacrifice, they dodge. Asked to tell us how they see the world in 2009, they punt. "It's frustrating and dangerous, because neither candidate is building the credibility that comes from candor," says Maya MacGuineas, who heads the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

It seems un-American, and politically suicidal, to suggest some belt-tightening—let alone new taxes. In 1984, Walter Mondale declared that he or President Reagan would have to raise taxes, regardless of who won. The earnest Minnesotan lost 49 states. In 1988, George H.W. Bush was determined not to repeat Mondale's mistake. So he declared at the Republican convention: "Read my lips—no new taxes!" His own economic adviser had tried to strike the line, but Bush's political aides kept it in. Bush won 40 states—and raised taxes two years later. The last to talk grimly about the trouble ahead was Ross Perot in 1992.

The economic crisis is so vast that the candidates can be excused if they don't know what to say. They claim that they have answers, but not comprehensive ones; they talk about crisis without daring to describe its nightmarish permutations. The most specific or sweeping proposals can be rendered irrelevant by one day's dramatic events; the planetary numbers are so huge that the candidates can seem as though they're doodling with crayons on the margin of a wall-size oil painting. "Up to a point, you have to give these guys a pass, I guess," says MacGuineas. "Things are moving too fast for them to keep up."

As a result, the debates on and off the air can seem divorced from reality. To take them seriously requires voters to exercise what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a "willing suspension of disbelief." The 19th-century poet was talking about the attitude of mind you need to appreciate a poem, but that attitude may be precisely what voters need in the last weeks of the campaign. They need to assume that the country and the world can dig out of this mess—and that a new president can make the difference in doing so. Is there a candidate equipped to do this? It will need to be someone willing—and, most important, able—to explain unpleasant truths, to admit that he doesn't know all the answers and yet not forget the sense of hope Americans hold dear as a secular faith. With three weeks left, time to find him is running out.