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If only presidential candidates would tell us the truth

Posted: July 30, 2012 - 1:00am

It feels like the lull before the storm. This fall the airwaves will be filled with campaign venom, irresponsible attacks by groups you’ve never heard of, and hundreds of millions of dollars of TV commercials.

We know what the Obama and Romney campaign staffs are doing this month.

They’re doing polling and focus groups. They’re raising money like crazy. They’re planning their October surprises, and spending literally thousands of hours in dark rooms poring over video clips of the opposing candidate to see which will work best in attack ads.

Romney is closing in on a running mate. The one thing you can be sure of is that he or she won’t be super rich.

But I find myself wondering if anyone in either camp is thinking about mounting a campaign that is in sync with what needs to be done if they win. I hope someone in each camp is writing a memo that contains thoughts like these:

To the Candidate:

We should level with the American people that massive economic adjustments need to be made after we take office. The revenue base needs to be increased and made fairer; we need cost-control reforms for the entitlement programs including the sacred cows, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security; we need to continue to pare defense expenditures; we have to launch a large infrastructure program to boost competitiveness and create jobs; and we have to stabilize federal support for state and local governments so that this critical sector of the American economy isn’t going backward and throwing people out of work as the rest of us are finally moving forward.

We don’t have to spell out the gory details of how we’re going to do this. But we should sketch out the scope, the urgency and the enormous benefits of this program for two reasons: to lay the political ground for actually doing it, and because the American people know we’re in trouble and will rally around a leader who explains convincingly the scale of what we have to do. There is no guarantee that attack ads won’t sway lots of voters. But we will never have a chance of earning the voters’ most serious and thoughtful response if we don’t trust them enough to put forward our most serious and thoughtful call to action.

I may be a naive optimist. Mitt Romney has so twisted himself into an odd-shaped right-wing pretzel in gaining the nomination that he may simply go on appeasing the ``tea party,’’ attacking Barack Obama, and never talking about what needs to be done.

Obama has articulated some of the pieces of what we need to do. But he has been silent about other parts, including the extent of reform we need in Medicare and Medicaid, and he has not knit it all together in a package that is balanced, fair, and powerful enough to get the American public to say: Yup, parts of this will hurt, but that’s what it’s going to take.

For a while it looked like we might have had a third-party candidate, and if that had been someone of the stature and credibility of a Michael Bloomberg, it might have forced the two other candidates to raise their game.

But now we are stuck with the classic American formula where each candidate can try to energize and turn out his base, and then swoop in and snare a single-digit percentage worth of the centrists who decide most two-candidate elections in the U.S. system.

France has a new president. China will get a new one this fall. England has a relatively new prime minister, and Germany has an election in 2013. We’ve been stuck in gridlock long enough. The U.S. needs a new leader in 2013 — whether he has a different name or not.

• Goldmark, a former budget director of New York state, is a member of the State Budget Crisis Task Force.

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