Psst -- What About the Damn Economy?

Do we have to wait for soup lines in Shaker Heights before we have a serious debate on the economy? In the last two Democratic debates, not one question was directed at what to do about the economy. Iraq, health care, the politics of parsing, pearls or diamonds -- all got attention. But the economy -- growth, jobs, wages, inflation -- the basic stuff has been missing in action. Now, with Republicans headed into the YouTube debate on Wednesday night, it's time for the unctuous moderators to cut to the chase.

The candidates haven't done much better than their interrogators. Republicans, for the most part, have been content to praise the Bush economy -- "the greatest story never told" in Fred Thompson's favorite mantra. Economic policy is just another ideological litmus test -- prove your conservative credentials by promising to defend the Bush tax cuts and sprinkle on a couple more, while pledging to slash domestic spending. But cutting spending (and jobs) as the economy is headed into a recession is akin using kerosene to douse a fire.

Democrats have focused more on the pressures facing working families -- health care, affordable college, deference to trade fears -- but they too have basically assumed a growing economy going forward. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's constant refrain is get Bush's "crushing deficits" under control. But deficit reduction when the economy is slowing doesn't make much sense either.

What's clear now is that this economy is in trouble. The credit crisis is roiling global financial markets. Housing prices and sales are down, with millions of foreclosures beginning to have far broader effect. Oil is at $100 a barrel. The dollar is sinking; gold is near record highs. Food prices are rising. Parents might well be tightening their belts while trying to find toys that won't poison their children.

Fed Chair Ben Bernanke is about as dour as he dare be publicly, projecting sluggish growth through the Spring. Larry Summers, Clinton's former Treasury Secretary, says a recession is more likely than not. (Bob Rubin, Summers' mentor, was no doubt too preoccupied trying to bail out Citibank to comment.)

Tomorrow's Republican YouTube debate should kick off a serious discussion about the economy. Republicans will no doubt call for more tax cuts, but they should be pushed on this. At a time when the speculators are betting against the dollar, when corporations are investing abroad, when a significant hunk of private U.S. investment pays for shedding jobs through mergers and acquisitions, and with inequality already at Gilded Age extremes, top end tax cuts aren't likely to generate much in jobs or growth in this country.

Rather than reducing deficits, Democrats would be better advised to argue for a bold investment agenda -- on conservation and alternative energy, on rebuilding our decrepit infrastructure from schools to bridges -- that would create jobs here in America and kick-start the economy. Voters are looking for someone who will lead. It is bizarre that the presidential candidates essentially ducked, while Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed to get big mortgage brokers to delay interest rate resets on mortgages that threaten another million homeowners with foreclosure.

Whatever the posture, let's have the debate. Most Americans thought this economy was in a recession or heading there when the Bush economy was at its height. Now it is in trouble and getting worse. Skip the questions on pearls and diamonds. Forgo the argument about who went negative first. We already know where Republicans are on Darwin and Democrats on drivers' licenses. It's time to find out what these candidates think about the turmoil threatening the economy, and what they would do about it.