Difficult questions for all

Workers prepare the set for the presidential debate, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2012, at the Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver in Denver. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will hold their first debate Wednesday.

Politics is a spectator sport of sorts. Like many such entertaining spectacles, its fans focus on assorted statistics, including conflicting poll results and updates of campaign funds raised.

And during tonight’s first 2012 debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, many among the expected U.S. television audience of 50 million or more will keep their own scores of the competitors’ verbal blunders, on-target zingers and truth stretchers.

But before becoming totally distracted by the horse-race aspect of tonight’s allegedly forensic contest on domestic policy, keep in mind that one of those men will be elected president on Nov. 6.

And as for pertinent statistics, keep in mind these indisputable numbers that linger as a considerable challenge to not just the White House winner but the rest of us:

The federal government, after setting a record with a $455 billion deficit in 2008, has now recorded four straight deficits of at least $1.1 trillion. During that period, the national debt has soared from less than $11 trillion to more than $16 trillion.

The U.S. unemployment rate has been 8 percent for 43 consecutive months — the longest streak at that painfully high level since the Depression.

Medicare, according to its trustees, has an unfunded liability of almost $38 trillion — and its hospital insurance trust fund is on course to go bankrupt in 2024.

No, this isn’t a point-by-point case against the re-election of President Barack Obama.

It’s simply a reminder that there are far more significant issues at stake in tonight’s debate than how many style points are rung up by Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney.

Both candidates presumably will be asked about some of the grim fiscal numbers above. Both will offer assurances that they have the best plans to put Americans back to work and to solve our intensifying debt crisis.

And neither is likely to provide details that would undermine his chance of victory at the ballot box.

For instance, don’t expect the president or his challenger to bluntly warn that we will never get our fiscal house in order without major tax hikes (and not just for “the rich”) and major benefit cuts.

Savvy politicians have long known that the more specific they get about the difficult choices facing our nation, states and communities, the greater their electoral peril.

But if you want to make a responsible, fully informed choice on which candidate gets your vote for president, watch the debates with more in mind than the candidates’ appearance, manner, charm and comedic appeal. Fairly scrutinize the substance of their answers, positions and records.

That same practical principle applies when deciding who deserves your vote for any office.

Ultimately, we get the elected leaders we choose — which means we get the elected leaders we deserve.

And that means President Obama and Mr. Romney aren’t the only ones facing tough questions tonight.

We all are.