It would be nice if the candidates took a break from expressing shock and awe at each other’s tax returns and marriages and got back to…the deficit, for one thing

by Ryan Streeter on January 20, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

If there’s one thing that seemed clear from last night’s debate, it’s that the big issues aren’t really on people’s minds right now at this point in the presidential race. There was no talk of Iran or foreign policy, and like past debates, the notion that we are living with a historically unprecedented deficit seems lost on people. It’s been a long time since the candidates have been forced to say with any detail what they’d do about this problem.

Strange, too, since Alan Blinder’s column yesterday in the Wall Street Journal should have set up John King and the CNN crew with at least a few points on this front.

Blinder discussed 4 myths about the deficit. The first two are most interesting – the first because of its significance, the second because, I think, it’s flawed in an important way.

Myth No. 1 is that the American people now demand deficit reduction as never before. Don’t believe it. Yes, if you ask Americans about the deficit, they’ll tell you they hate it—as they always have. But opinion polls show that the budget deficit is nowhere close to being Economic Public Enemy No 1.

Candidates should say this. Not to beat up on the electorate, but to help people see the seriousness of what we’re dealing with. As Kevin Williamson recently wrote, “We are, in one sense, the national equivalent of the individual who never expected to live past sixty-five and didn’t save adequately for his retirement.”  And this is because of the entitlements – primarily Medicare but also Social Security – that are driving up the deficit but which we don’t want to let go of.

In surveys, even Tea Partiers express unease when asked about reform to entitlements. Expectations of benefits from the government run deep. Changing this mindset is the biggest cultural challenge of our generation – and the topic is basically AWOL from the 2012 debate right now.

Myth No. 2 is that America’s deficit problem is so acute that government spending must be cut right now, despite the struggling economy.

Blinder’s right on the facts on this one. But he’s wrong by not factoring politics into the equation. We needed to start making the cuts yesterday, because the political environment will always move too slowly, even in the midst of a crisis. I hear this “we have time” argument a lot, and given how our politicians have been behaving, I’m stunned by it. Do people really think that our political class will suddenly become enlightened at some point in the future and start making the cuts on the scale needed? And in the right programs?

Of course not.

That’s why Paul Ryan has been so valuable. He’s been driving for reform to the drivers of the deficit while we still have had some time. But that time has effectively run out, when you consider the politics of it.

It sure would be nice if the candidates would take a break from expressing shock and awe at each other’s tax returns and failed marriages and turn their eyes to the deficit again.