On a day when the Dow lost more than 500 points and closed at its lowest point in five years, the presidential candidates sounded oddly out of touch with reality. Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain spent much of their second debate Tuesday night making familiar arguments about tax cuts, energy and voting records. No wonder there is a lack of confidence in Washington in the midst of the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The genuine economic concerns of working Americans came through in several of the questions in the town hall format. Yet neither candidate offered much reassurance that they are adjusting to address the financial debacle they will inherit from a president whose job approval ratings have plummeted to Nixon-era levels.
McCain recklessly floats unfocused big ideas and leaves them hanging in the air without explanation. He repeated his pledge from the first debate to freeze federal spending except for defense, military veterans and other unnamed priorities. He also said he would order the Treasury secretary to buy mortgages of individual homeowners and adjust them to reflect declining values. That sounds desperate coming from a politician who argues against big government and only recently embraced more government regulation of financial markets. It offers false hope to Americans when Congress would not even allow bankruptcy judges last week to alter mortgage terms for homeowners facing foreclosure.
Obama sounded more realistic at several points. He correctly pointed out that McCain's across-the-board spending freeze would not distinguish valuable programs from those that should be eliminated. McCain would not set any priorities and insisted he could simultaneously tackle health care reform, create a new energy policy and reform entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. Washington hasn't been able to accomplish just one of those goals even in good economic times. At least Obama recognized "we are going to have to prioritize" and listed energy policy as his top goal, followed by health care.
The differing views on tax policy came through clearly. Obama has the more responsible approach. He would repeal President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy. He effectively answered McCain's false accusations that he advocates broad tax increases by pointing out that 95 percent of working families would receive a tax cut. McCain wants to make all of the Bush tax cuts permanent and add billions in new tax breaks. "Let's not raise any taxes,'' the Arizona Republican said.
That's a new defense, but it is not compelling. McCain's economic plans would cause the national debt to mushroom and make it even harder for the government to deal with the economic crisis. Obama's proposals are more progressive, but it is questionable whether they can be responsibly carried out.
Voters are desperate for candor about the economic crisis and a vision recognizing the challenges ahead. Obama won the debate on points, but we are still waiting for more clarity and fewer sound bites from both candidates.