Goldmark: Candidates, what do you ask of us?

Peter Goldmark

Peter Goldmark, former publisher of the International Herald Peter Goldmark

Peter Goldmark writes a weekly column for Newsday. He is

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I want more from the two men who seek to lead my country than what we saw in that debate Wednesday night.

This country is in deep trouble, but neither candidate gave us a serious plan to get out of it.

One candidate was alert and aggressive, one seemed distracted and defensive.

One candidate seemed rested, fit and confident. The other seemed tired, uncertain and off balance.

But neither came anywhere close to presenting a real blueprint for digging us out of economic drift, worrisome unemployment, and low investment -- a cycle that could easily turn vicious if it isn't soon managed firmly, so that it turns virtuous.

Neither candidate put forward a meaningful way to start long-term investment pumping into the economy again, or spelled out the broad, tough measures it will take to rein in escalation in health care costs responsibly.

Neither candidate would touch with a 10-foot pole the question of how long, how large and how costly a deficit we're going to have to live with in order to get investment going again and phase in the necessary cuts and reforms sensibly.

With a deeply divided electorate, it is not surprising that both candidates sought to appeal to the center without alienating their respective bases. But the consequence of that is that neither set forth a message comprehensive and powerful enough to serve as the basis for the new common ground we will need in order to move out of the economic swamp we've gotten ourselves into.

I suspect that many voters who disagree bitterly on ideological issues may think alike on some underlying gut issues. I think most Americans are deeply alarmed at the political gridlock we're in, because they know we have lost our way -- and for the first time in their memory, they see their government essentially paralyzed.

Most Americans know that it will be a tough and long road to work our way out of our present dilemma. But if a candidate will describe honestly what that road looks like, and will spell out compellingly the measures necessary for us to move together down that road, I think most will support him.

And the tragedy of Wednesday night was that the two candidates for the presidency of the most powerful nation on Earth ducked the tough questions and basically just sniped at each other. There was not one viewer, among the tens of millions who tuned in, who switched off the TV afterward knowing what was being asked of each of us as we prepare for the most difficult and fateful presidential term our country has experienced in a long time.

I've read the views of the pundits and analysts telling me why Mitt Romney "won" the debate. I saw the wisecracks and tweets listing the smart retorts one or another candidate could have made to the other. But I wonder how many Americans were, like me, simply sad that for 90 minutes, neither of the two men who want to lead this troubled country seemed able to rise to the level of the challenges that face them and the expectations we have of them.

So it is time to step up, gentlemen. I know very clearly by now what you want me to think of your opponent. But I don't really know where you want to take us and how you're going to do it. So when you come to Hofstra on Oct. 16, talk to us not in the tired coin of blame and political half-truths, but in the powerful tones of wise and honest leadership. And tell me what you will ask of me to help get where you think we ought to go. I might even be ready to give it to you.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.