A 21-year-old Bangladeshi man tried to blow up the building next to where my children live yesterday.  He was sent to our country on a student visa by his family to give him a shot, as the vice president might say, because he was reportedly not doing well in college at home. Fortunately, it is a different kind of news story than it could have been, but all of a sudden there is a line missing from the president’s campaign speeches about having Al Qaeda on the run, and pundits are inquiring rhetorically if we might have a foreign policy debate Monday night worthy of adults.

I have watched debates two nights in a row.  Tuesday, the contestants for commander in chief squared off and, last night, Indiana’s gubernatorial candidates made their respective cases on the beautiful campus of the University of Notre Dame.  These debates are the major national news in a country where people in states like mine are voting already in the general election.

All of the candidates want to assure us that they will “cut” only programs with limited public support – often meaning projects championed by the opponents’ team. The poor and the middle class will or will not benefit from contesting tax, energy, economic, foreign and environmental policies, depending on if the candidate is on the offense or defending his own positions.  We will produce domestic energy; we should follow the five-point plan; we can’t turn back now; we will finish Interstate 69. Nobody (or everybody) who is listening right now should (or should not) worry about collecting Medicare benefits.

Those of you who have read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” will remember that even an untrained person who listens to the tone of a doctor talking to a patient, without recognizing the actual words spoken, can predict with an astonishing accuracy which of the docs will be sued for malpractice.  So too, are the debates being scored on aggressiveness, intensity and body language.  The so-called “fact-checking” can now turn a simple phrase into a position, and we are buried with translations of every word spoken by a male candidate into a rating of potential “likeability” by women.

Everyone I talk to about the debates wants to hear what the candidates are going to do about serious challenges facing the country in the short and long term. If not specifically, they want to at least know what philosophical touchstones guide an informed decision.  But there has been no serious discussion describing what we can no longer afford, even though most people expect that there is a category of these things that is going to matter.

Getting rid of fraud, waste and abuse is a worthy goal, and some progress is being made. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that a decent audit would show billions of taxpayer dollars in improper payments, but it is trillions of dollars of benefits and interest payments that we already owe or will soon, and the numbers are getting larger at an alarming rate.

Economic growth is a worthy goal, but there has been minimal debate about how this is accomplished, except to adopt one guy’s plan instead of the other guy’s. We have done it before, so there is history to illuminate the fertile conditions and essential elements of tax policy, regulatory burden, size of government and so forth of a growing economy; if the debates were to be about this, but apparently they are not to be.  They are about style, and caring, and whom would you rather have a beer with.

I can tell you one thing for certain – nobody is going help the middle class unless they understand that energy and economics cannot be separated in the modern world economic system.  Inexpensive energy and credit are the essential materials for a growing economy, and if the American economy doesn’t grow, other economies will and America’s middle class will not prosper.  Even if you demand that rich people devote more of their resources to the government.

The Indiana debate came closer to being meaningful, because you can only launch so many platitudes about how to manage a state.  States have rankings in many different publications that compare them to other states, and these differences have to be acknowledged.  States adopt different laws and policies, and can note how their residents fare under differing regimes.  State voters are more aware when real cuts are made, because states can’t print money, and there are only a few tricks allowing a state to spend more than it gathers up in taxes and the dollars trickling back from Washington.

Indiana has a budget surplus, because of very capable management over the last few years.  They passed bipartisan budgets to get there.  I didn’t hear either candidate in the presidential debates ask or explain why the country has failed to do this.  It’s not in the talking points.  Maybe we do live in a bumper sticker world and texting has ruined our ability to absorb a complete thought.  But I think that the campaigns would be rewarded by any attempt to actually lay down a vision for the country with some specificity.

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