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June 09. 2011 11:03PM

George E. Pataki: GOP presidential candidates should focus on our national debt

New Hampshire’s presidential primary debates are an American institution with a storied past of helping to make or break White House candidacies.

Many people remember Ronald Reagan’s famous “I am paying for this microphone!” outburst during the 1980 New Hampshire primary campaign. That brief moment in the spotlight helped establish Reagan as a decisive, no-nonsense candidate at a time when the nation, suffering from recession at home and humiliated by the hostage crisis abroad, was desperately searching for leadership.†It paved the way for Reagan to win the nomination and ultimately the presidency.

Monday night’s GOP primary debate at Saint Anselm College may not feature quite as memorable a TV moment as Reagan’s, but it will produce important and definitive moments of its own, and likely do a lot to separate serious candidates who are ready to lead on big issues from those who are not.

No other issue today is more consequential — both for us and for future generations — than our collective $14.3 trillion national debt.

According to a recent Gallup poll, almost a fifth of Americans see the deficit as the most pressing issue facing the nation, behind only (not surprisingly) the economy and unemployment.†And, more and more, voters are realizing that these issues are closely related.†

Stopping the massive growth in debt under President Obama will not be easy, nor will it be politically popular. But as Americans, we have no choice. Unless our government starts to make the same kind of tough decisions that families have been making around the kitchen table, our debt will inevitably lead to national decline and falling living standards.†This isn’t some wild theoretical prediction; it’s happening around the world: in the Greek debt crisis, in Ireland’s bank meltdown, and Japan’s “Lost Decade.”†

Simply stated, left unchecked our mounting national debt will be a drag on investment and job growth forever, dimming this great country’s future and changing the fabric of American society.

Monday night, I’ll be watching to see which candidates have the courage to go beyond focus group-tested sound bites and the fortitude to address the debt in something other than politically safe rhetoric.†I’ll be listening for specifics.

No American Debt, the organization I launched recently to confront America’s debt crisis and hold this President and the candidates accountable, will be comparing debt reduction plans to see who is serious and willing to lead.

It’s not enough for candidates to mouth platitudes about earmarks and other forms of wasteful spending. Candidates have been doing that for years, yet in the past 10 years, under both Republicans and Democrats, Washington has added almost $10 trillion to the national debt. Every American today carries a $46,000 share of that debt; every taxpayer owes $129,000.

Merely attacking the other candidates won’t do either. Unfortunately, early attempts to tackle the debt have been met with hostility and trivial political attacks. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius went as far to claim that Congressman Paul Ryan’s House budget plan would make seniors “die sooner.”

We have to do better and move beyond such preposterous claims. It’s time for a serious conversation about how we correct course and pay down our national debt. This President has failed on this issue; our next one must do better.

Candidates must present detailed plans that address specifically the Big Four: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and defense. These four big-ticket programs alone are responsible for over 60 percent of the budget annually.

On Monday, the people of New Hampshire and the entire nation will be watching to learn about the candidates’ plans to solve America’s debt crisis. Time is running out and there is no better place to get started than in this important state.

George E. Pataki is the honorary chairman of No American Debt and†a former three-term governor of the State of New York.

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