Back when George W. Bush was in the White House and American Liberals spent most evenings quietly weeping into their dog-eared copies of the The General Theory, Aaron Sorkin made a lot of money producing a hopelessly Hollywood version of what a liberal Presidency might look like. NBC's "The West Wing" ran for seven seasons and in those seven seasons, President Josiah Bartlet was everything that President George W. Bush was not -- naturally, liberals loved the show.
Sorkin's political fantasy provided more than a few excellent lessons about the day to day operation of the US federal government but it also taught many Americans a great deal about politics and how the game is played. In one particularly memorable episode, President Bartlet debates his mid-term challenger, Governor Robert Ritchie who delivers what looks like a knock-out punch in the race's only debate: "We need to cut taxes for one reasons - the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does."
President Josiah Bartlett explains that some things are too complex for a ten-word answer.
Bartlet responds, "Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They're the tip of the sword. Here's my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I'll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while... every once in a while, there's a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren't very many un-nuanced moments in leading a country that's way too big for ten words."
If you're already starting to see echoes of the current Presidential race in Bartlet's bid for a second term, you're not alone. Sorkin could have almost cast Mitt Romney to play Governor Ritchie and certainly could have hired Romney's campaign strategists to gin up Ritchie's campaign platform.
For the past several months Americans have listened to governor Romney discuss, at great length, the fact that he wants to cut tax rates while closing tax loopholes. We've seen him claim that he has a five point plan to get our economy growing again, claim that he knows how to create jobs (and then claim that government doesn't do that), and claim that he'll repeal Obamacare while still keeping coverage for pre-existing conditions.
But we've yet to see him explain how.
Politics is, as Bismark once put it, "the art of the possible." Everything in politics is a trade off -- cutting taxes means less money to invest in education or social safety nets; job training programs come at the expense of air superiority fighters; green energy subsidies mean less money for oil and natural gas companies. Every dollar the government spends and every dollar it declines to spend (through tax cuts) comes at the expense of some other program benefitting some other citizen somewhere else in the country.
So when Mitt Romney claims that he'll cut tax rates and pay for it by closing loopholes but he won't tell you which loopholes - that should make you suspicious.
When he tells you that he'll balance the budget by cutting wasteful government programs but he won't tell you which programs - that should make you suspicious.
When he tells you that he'll repeal Obamacare and continue coverage for people with pre-existing conditions but he won't tell you how - that should make you suspicious.
Those are ten word answers. It's easy to promise lower taxes, a balanced budget, healthcare for all, more military spending, and economic prosperity but if a candidate can't or won't tell you how he's going to accomplish those things then he either doesn't know himself or he figures that you won't like the answer.
If you've been paying attention during this campaign you already know what the various candidates stand for -- they've said it a thousand times over. Rather than spending the remaining weeks listening for more of the same, try listening to what they're not saying. That should tell you a lot about the credibility of the promises they're making.
If Mr Romney can't find it in himself to tell Americans how he'll pay for his tax cuts, how he'll balance the budget, how he'll reduce the debt, how he'll reform healthcare, and how he'll create all those jobs he keeps talking about maybe that's really all undecided voters really need know.