'What don't you know, and how will you learn it?"
When "Peggy from Amherst" submitted that question to Tom Brokaw, moderator of Tuesday night's presidential debate, she probably already knew she wasn't going to get a genuine answer from the candidates. And she didn't.
Barack Obama made a quick joke ("My wife, Michelle, is there, and she could give you a [long] list"), observed that it's the unexpected challenges that often consume most of a president's time, then swiftly changed the subject to the American dream. John McCain explained that "what I don't know is what all of us don't know, and that's what's going to happen ... what I don't know is what the unexpected will be." Then he too changed the subject.
So I'll answer Peggy's question.
What McCain doesn't seem to know -- yet -- is that he's a dead man walking. He'll learn it definitively on Nov. 4, when he's going to lose the election -- and the polls increasingly suggest that he'll lose big. The GOP as a whole will also lose big. We're in the middle of an epochal shift in U.S. politics. A global economic crisis, two wars and an ongoing nuclear and terrorist threat have left most Americans disgusted by the recklessness of free marketeers and by unilateralist, militarist approaches to foreign policy.
The era of GOP dominance of U.S. politics is over. McCain, the son and grandson of Navy admirals, wanted to be the Republican Party's "steady hand at the tiller." Now he's going down with the ship.
Let's get to Obama, who's almost certain to be our president.
What Obama doesn't know is how to keep the global economic crisis from sending all the rest of us to the bottom of the sea, right along with McCain and the GOP.
Obama won't say that, of course -- no sane politician would. On the contrary, Obama, like McCain, bent over backward during Tuesday's debate to reassure voters that all of our problems can be fixed. Neither he nor McCain made reference to the Dow's plunge of 508 points Tuesday, nor to the fact that the index has lost a full third of its value in a year. And when asked by Brokaw if the economy will get "much worse before it gets better," Obama's response was quick: "No. I'm confident about the American economy."
Really? I'm not.
I don't usually hope that politicians are being disingenuous. But if Obama truly thinks things won't get worse, then what he doesn't know is scary.
The U.S. economy is now in roughly the situation the Titanic was in when its lookouts spotted that fatal iceberg looming ahead, and most Americans have started to figure this out. And though finger-pointing is always fun, most of us are turning to more urgent questions -- such as whether there will be enough lifeboats to go around and whether there's any real prospect of rescue and recovery.
Obama must know this. But presumably his debate prep team told him that with election day so close, it would be stupid to acknowledge a vast, spreading problem if he can't offer voters an equally comprehensive and compelling solution. And I'm pretty sure Obama doesn't yet know how to do that.
Don't blame him for not yet knowing how to do that, though. Right now, no one really knows how to do that. Not Obama, not McCain, not Ben Bernanke or Paul Krugman or Larry Summers or Hank Paulson. No one. We're all out of our depth.
That's what makes our situation so frightening. A problem that began in the U.S. housing market rippled around the globe. Ripples became waves, waves became tsunamis, and now global shores are strewn with wrecked financial institutions. Entire national economies are starting to sink. And in today's globalized economy, we all sink or swim together.
During World War II -- even as the fighting raged in devastated Europe -- the Allied powers met at Bretton Woods to establish international institutions designed to stabilize the international financial system. On Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund -- a cornerstone of the Bretton Woods system -- warned that the world economy faces "the most dangerous financial shock in mature markets since the 1930s." But even as the IMF called for "strong and coordinated actions," much of the post-World War II financial system appeared to be unraveling.
Can we save it? Or is it time for some radically new approaches, both domestically and internationally?
Obama doesn't know yet. But whatever Obama says publicly, I hope he's got his most creative economists working to figure this out. He -- and the rest of us -- better hope we can learn fast.