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Now that the last of the big debates is history and the public is left with nothing but the regular sitcoms for amusement, it's time to take stock.

After all, hearing the four most qualified men in America expound on questions of tremendous import was supposed to be an edifying experience. So after a three-part gabfest spread over 10 days, what do we know?

That question brings to mind the cutesy little phrase that "everything important in life, I learned in the first grade." It seems at least that long ago that we learned that the real problem is not the politicians, it's us. The debates only reinforced that notion.

For instance, we know that huge entitlement programs like Medicare are choking the federal budget and that -- well after this election -- someone will have to perform a fiscal Heimlich maneuver that puts the squeeze on lots of Americans.

But what did Messrs. Clinton, Dole, Kemp or Gore have to say about that?

"We ought to appoint a commission," said Dole, the Kansas war hero, demonstrating all of the courage he's come to be known for during this campaign.

"I'd be happy to have a commission deal with this," replied Clinton, the draft evader, showing he can still dodge with the best of them.

They're no fools. They know the problem can't be solved with "invisible" remedies like simply curbing payments to doctors and hospitals. Premiums will have to be hiked, the wealthy will have to pay more, and seniors may have to be steered into managed care.

They didn't tell us that in the debates because we don't want to hear it. But even a first-grader can figure it out.

Nor did they tell us how they'll stop special-interest money from ruining politics and turning government "by the people, for the people" into a dirty joke.

The good-government group Common Cause just accused both parties of Watergate-style campaign violations and asked for an independent counsel. In the meantime, each party blames the other while continuing to trample the spirit -- and maybe the letter -- of the law while turning access to government into a garage sale.

What's the Washington solution?

"I've suggested . . . we have a commission," said the lifelong Washington insider who would be president.

"I appointed my members and the commission never met," said the leader of the free world.

If you'd have closed your eyes, you'd have thought it was Ross Perot after voice lessons. The whiny Texan's solution to every problem is to appoint a commission, and Dole and Clinton seemed intent on flattering him with imitation.

But the truth is that the disappointing TV ratings would have been even smaller had the candidates told Americans the truth: that the only way to get clean government is to pay for it in the form of greater public funding and accompanying restrictions.

That's not something we're ready to hear, but intuitively we already know it.

We also know that this is no time to cut taxes. After the ValuJet crash last spring revealed an appalling lack of airline oversight, the government hired more inspectors. But they did it after the fact.

After the nation got up in arms because teen drug use rose, it suddenly occurred to Republican downsizers that we shouldn't cut the drug czar's office. That realization also came after the fact.

How many other national problems are bubbling just below the surface, ready to mushroom because we don't have the money to deal with them until after a crisis erupts?

We don't have the money because total tax burden -- federal, state and local taxes -- as a percentage of gross domestic product is lower in the United States than in almost any other industrialized country.

So what did we get in the debates? Tax cuts. We got Dole's 15 percent, across-the-board effort to hike the deficit, and we got Clinton's "me, too" tax credits and deductions.

With a tax burden so low and so many needs, we should be talking about raising taxes in a progressive manner, not cutting them. But we didn't hear anything like that last night or in the first two sessions because we don't really want to hear it -- even if we know it's true.

Not that the debates weren't useful, as far as they went. For those who don't follow the campaign on a daily basis, they were like Cliff's Notes, neatly summarizing differences on issues like abortion and education.

But they were informative only within the parameters of what the public wants to hear and is ready to digest. That means some issues will never make it into prime time because debates are the political version of "sweeps week," and like everyone on TV, the candidates have to please. For voters, hearing specifically how we might have to sacrifice is not very pleasing.

But don't worry about the problems that were dodged in these debates. We will hear much more about them in the debates four years from now, when things have only gotten worse.

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