We’re entitled to answers

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama wave to the audience during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver in Denver. (AP/FILE)

Advance buzz about tonight’s debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney predictably focuses on how it will affect an election that will be held in three weeks.

But all Americans, including the relative few who haven’t already decided which man will get their vote, should focus strongly on what the candidates say about overdue entitlement reform over the next three — and more — decades.

Because no matter if and how tonight’s showdown changes poll numbers for the candidates, a failure to change the unsustainable status quos of Medicare and Social Security is a sure-to-lose numbers game for our nation.

Yet neither the first presidential debate on Oct. 3 nor last week’s vice-presidential debate was particularly enlightening on this crucial topic.

At least the issue was correctly identified this way early in the VP debate: “Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process.”

That wasn’t a warning from Republican nominee Paul Ryan, who has been an ardent advocate of entitlement reform as chairman of the House Budget Committee.

That was a statement of indisputable fact from debate moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC.

Mr. Ryan followed up by stressing that comprehensive alterations are required to halt those entitlements’ accelerating slide toward fiscal oblivion.

Vice President Joe Biden responded: “Look, these guys haven’t been big on Medicare from the beginning. Their party’s not been big on Medicare from the beginning. And they’ve always been about Social Security as little as you can do. Look, folks, use your common sense. Who do you trust on this?”

That’s an important question for voters. So is this: Should you trust a ticket that insists a fundamental transformation of entitlements is needed, or a ticket that’s resisting such a sweeping overhaul?

In fairness, though, while Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan talk a good general game on entitlement reform, they seem a bit leery about providing many details.

No surprise there. Fixing what’s wrong with Medicare and Social Security will inevitably demand lower benefits and higher taxes — a toxic brew for any candidate to serve.

But regardless of fluctuating polls, the vice president’s bad debate manners and speculation that the president will be on the offensive tonight after a listless performance in Denver, those short-term factors won’t mean much if we don’t soon get our long-term entitlement costs under control.

So let’s hope tonight’s debate — a “town hall meeting” in Hempstead, N.Y. — sheds more light than the first two did on how President Obama and Mr. Romney aim to counter rising risks to, and from, Medicare and Social Security.

And let’s hope whoever wins the presidency on Nov. 6 will summon the political courage and develop the bipartisan support in Congress needed to alter our reckless course toward an entitlement train wreck.