We Need Real Plans from Barack Obama and Mitt Romney

Americans will watch the debates to see specific policy ideas from the candidates.

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, right, campaign in swing states in August 2012.
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For weeks, I've been planning to write a column previewing the upcoming presidential debates—actually three debates and one town hall meeting, all to be held on weeknights in October. I was looking forward to writing about what each side needs to accomplish, predictions on likely topics, and the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate. I was even going to end with funny quotes from the season opener of Saturday Night Live.

We interrupt this regularly scheduled column to talk about what's really going on in the world.

Dozens of U.S. embassies are under siege, from Southeast Asia to North Africa to the Middle East. After the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed recently, the White House stubbornly stuck with the notion that the attack was "spontaneous," an unplanned protest by demonstrators upset at an obscure but offensive anti-Muslim video, despite the fact that rocket-propelled grenades were used in the assault on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. The date of the attack was "coincidental," a senior U.S. official said. Really?

[Read More From Mary Kate Cary in U.S. News Weekly, an Insider's Guide to Politics and Policy.]

That's not what Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif told CBS News's Face the Nation. He said the Libyan government has "no doubt" that the attack was "preplanned, predetermined," amid reports that the U.S. embassy staff in Egypt knew about the potential for violence several days beforehand. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney continued to insist that the massive rioting overseas was not a long-simmering al Qaeda-led strike on American interests, but a reaction to a video. When a black flag flew in place of the American flag over our embassy in Tunisia, I felt sick. I don't think anyone—outside of the White House press corps—is buying Carney's argument.

When Mitt Romney clumsily but correctly pointed out that the administration's first response to the violence in Egypt was to criticize Americans who "abuse" their right to free speech, rather than to condemn violence, the Obama campaign and the media jumped on it. The problem is the administration knew that Romney was right. In fact, according to Politico, an administration official had disavowed the U.S. embassy's statement 15 minutes before Romney's criticism. So the administration agreed with Romney before he had even said a word.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the turmoil in the Middle East.]

At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned that Iran's nuclear weapons program is now in a "red zone," months away from full capacity. "You have to place that red line before them now, before it's too late," Netanyahu said on NBC's Meet the Press. Whether or not you agree that the United States needs to place any "red line" before Iran, the answer from the White House was unacceptable: The president was too busy to meet with Netanyahu, but not too busy for Vegas fundraisers and an appearance on David Letterman's talk show. The two leaders later spoke by phone, but the message was clear not only to the Israelis but also to alarmed Americans who wonder why the president can't be bothered.

Meanwhile, the jaw-dropping level of government spending persists: Record federal budget deficits continue unabated; four-year borrowing during the Obama administration has hit a whopping $55,000 per U.S. household. A recent Time magazine cover entitled "One Nation, Subsidized" detailed the astounding level of government spending (excuse me, "investment") on everyday life in the United States, listing the trillions spent on everything from the water we drink to the cotton T-shirts we wear to the healthcare plans we join. According to Time, the only thing the government doesn't seem to subsidize these days is the family dog. Well, unless it's a service dog.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

The unfunded liabilities of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are adding trillions in debt. But as Romney argued in the "secret video" released by Mother Jones, almost half of earners pay no federal income tax at all, while the top 1 percent pays nearly 40 percent of all taxes. That's a debate voters need to hear: how to pay for all this government? One idea is to broaden the tax base and lower the rates because there isn't enough money in print for "millionaires and billionaires" to pay for it all. The current level of spending, combined with the shrinking number of actual taxpayers, is unsustainable for our economy and unhealthy for our democracy.