(I’ll probably have some real-time bon mots about the debate on my Twitter feed)

Thoughts turn to tonight’s Presidential debate, which is scheduled to focus on domestic issues, particularly the economy. These debates actually matter less than the media would have you believe, at least according to the political science literature. But they may be crucial in ways outside the mere political sphere and in terms of the policy going forward.

Simply put, there’s a potential here to refocus this entire race, which has flown off onto tangents at every opportunity. As Jim Tankersley ably explains today, the biggest challenge facing working families in America right now is this: can I find a job at a good wage, and can the millions of others who want to work find one too?

The question is, “Why aren’t you seriously trying to solve the jobs crisis?”

The so-called “jobs plans” both candidates have put forth are, put simply, nowhere near aggressive enough to close the gap between where the economy should be right now and where it actually is, due to the Great Recession and the feeble recovery that followed it.

Voters understand this — just look at how many of them tell pollsters they’re not confident either candidate will improve the economy. Now, Lehrer needs to force the candidates to explain themselves. They’ll filibuster and offer platitudes.

Lehrer should not relent. He should say this: “Gentlemen, 13 million Americans want to work today but can’t find jobs. According to the nonpartisan Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, the economy remains 11 million jobs short of where it should be, by historical trends.”

Tankersley then goes through the jobs plans of the two candidates, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the near-term jobs crisis. They both offer a long-term vision, in some cases ideological, in others technocratic, for the future of the country, but neither of them deal with the raging fire in the here and now exemplified by those who cannot find work.

It’s actually worse than that – the plans on offer could prove actively harmful to the project of replacing those millions of jobs. Both sides talk about deficit reduction, about the “Bowles-Simpson principles” and all the rest. But we know where an austerity agenda will take us. Sahil Kapur points to a liberated report from the Congressional Research Service, which just tries to quantify the cost in terms of jobs from the sequester, the cuts to defense and discretionary spending as well as the 2% across-the-board reduction in Medicare reimbursement rates, in 2013. And CRS reports that among the many estimates are one showing 2.1 million jobs lost, just next year, from this policy.

Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University’s Center of Regional Analysis, and Chmura Economics & Analytics produced estimates for the Aerospace Industries Association of the employment effect of cuts to defense and nondefense agencies’ budgets under the BCA. Using the IMPLAN Pro model, Fuller estimated that FY2012-FY2013 budget cuts of $115.7 billion (in nominal dollars) due to implementation of the BCA might reduce employment throughout the economy by 2.1 million jobs in FY2013.

That includes losses to direct federal employee and contractor jobs, indirect jobs from suppliers and other firms, and “induced” jobs which are supported by those direct and indirect jobs through consumer spending.

You can say that Governor Romney and President Obama don’t want to allow the sequester to go forward. They want to delay it, or replace it, or put in some mechanism to get around it. But here’s what I feel is the key point from CRS (emphasis mine):

Cutting federal spending will result in some employers losing business and some workers losing jobs. Because sequestration is scheduled to occur while the economy is slowly recovering from the 2007-2009 recession, those firms that sell their products to the government (either directly or indirectly) might have difficulty finding other buyers in the near term and the laid-off employees of these firms might have difficulty quickly finding new jobs. Achieving deficit reduction by some means other than the BCA’s about equal split of automatic budget reductions between non-exempt defense and nondefense programs might alter the composition of employers and employees who bear the burden of the cuts, but the impact on total U.S. employment may be similar.

In other words, it’s not the sequester, it’s the austerity. And both parties are on board for some form of austerity. Just allowing the payroll tax cut to expire will drag GDP growth down 1% in 2013, for example, and virtually everyone in Washington agrees with that. In fact, austerity began hitting the economy in mid-2010, when federal fiscal policy started to drag on GDP growth. It’s been relatively mild, which has allowed the US to outpace other economies (the IMF doesn’t expect the world to return to recovery until 2018). But the austerity from things like the Budget Control Act was always scheduled to really kick in come Fiscal Year 2013. That began on Monday.

The economy simply doesn’t have the footing it needs to withstand austerity, not with 13 million Americans out of work. And that issue is being left almost entirely unaddressed, shockingly so, in this Presidential campaign. Everyone has moved on.

This is the key question that Jim Lehrer can bring to the debate tonight. He can change the conversation and force the candidates to actually focus on what America really wants to hear.

I’m not holding my breath.