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On the federal deficit, candidates stay mostly vague

Rising entitlement costs and Iraq war expenses take a back seat to shorter-term stimulus plans.

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STAFF/FILE

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Here's some straight talk you're unlikely to hear from most presidential candidates: The next occupant of the Oval Office may have to make some very tough budget choices.

A flood of retiring baby boomers – plus rising healthcare costs – will soon send spending on federal entitlement programs soaring. Revenue won't keep pace, unless Washington allows President Bush's tax cuts to expire and stops shielding the middle class from the bite of the Alternative Minimum Tax.

Even then, Social Security and Medicare costs, piled on top of the expense of the Iraq war, could eventually cause the deficit to explode. It's a structural economic problem that most of the major candidates address only in the vaguest of terms.

"I don't think you're getting a lot of realistic rhetoric or plans from candidates overall," says Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group.

In their Jan. 21 debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama clashed over many things, including who would be the most fiscally responsible candidate in the Democratic race. Each charged that the other's ideas for new programs weren't fully offset by new revenues or cuts in other programs. In addition, Senator Obama took a shot at Republican orthodoxy, saying that it now included ideas such as "moving back from a balanced budget and a surplus to deficit and debt."

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