Where Was the Fiscal Cliff in the Obama-Romney Debates?

The presidential candidates should have spent less time lying and more time talking about what will happen as sequestration approaches at the end of the year.

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The first lie of the night, of course, was uttered before the third presidential debate even began. And that was when Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama walked onto the stage, shook hands (with the full-on hand on the upper elbow) and said, "Nice to see you again."

OK, that lie might be understandable. There is something to be said for massaging the truth when it comes to maintaining a veneer or courtesy in social situations. But on one of the most critical issues facing the country in the immediate future—the looming sequester of funds that is the fastest propeller in the fiscal-cliff scenario—lying is not useful.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Romney, as he has done on the stump, lambasted Obama for the potentially massive cuts to military spending should the sequester actually happen. This takes some brass, as former President Bill Clinton would say, because the only reason the stupid sequester is there at all is because the Republicans in Congress—actually, the Tea Party Republicans who managed to blackmail the more sensible members of their party—insisted on it as a condition of raising the debt limit. Congress did a very dumb thing, but in its defense, it only did so to prevent an even more dire consequence, that of a global fiscal meltdown once a stunned world was faced with the reality of a rich superpower refusing to pay its bills.

Obama corrected Romney—sort of, saying it was not his sequester but Congress's. True. Then he said, "It will not happen."

That's optimistic, and quite likely true—it's almost unimaginable that Republicans will let the defense cuts go through, or that Democrats will allow the deep cuts in discretionary domestic spending to occur. But the deadline is not far away—we're talking about the end of this year—and there is so far no progress whatsoever in achieving a plan to avert the sequester. Much of that is a function of the campaign, since lawmakers in both parties figure they'll have more bargaining room if their guy gets elected. But it's a lot of work to do before the end of the year, and it will have to be done with the cooperation of a majority of members—about half of whom are going to be in a really, really bad mood after the election. We just don't know yet which half it will be.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

What's remarkable is that Romney didn't go after Obama for failing to stop the idiotic sequester plan from happening. There's an answer to that—there's a critical mass of people in Congress who seem to think they should just get their way irrespective of what other elected officials think—but it's a good campaign attack line and bolsters Romney's complaints about Obama's "leadership." And Obama might have raised the question of how the newly Moderate Mitt would have handled—and would handle in the future—a Tea Party caucus unconcerned with fiscal reality and responsibility. Romney's big selling point, he keeps telling us, is his business experience. Is that any way to run a business—to decide you won't pay your bills, and dare your creditors to come after you?

The campaign will be over in early November. Before the next campaign starts (sometime in January), Washington will have a very small window to avoid a devastating cascade of financial consequences. How unfortunate that it wasn't a substantive issue in the debates.

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