The veteran Democrat, a top party tactician, had been asked to imagine, for the purpose of an interview to be broadcast on election night, that Barack Obama had been declared the next president.

He was assured that he wouldn't appear on TV making these remarks until after Americans had voted Tuesday and the results were certain.

So, he was asked, how would a president Obama explain why he can't fulfill his big-spending campaign promises?

"I think," the strategist immediately replied, "that people will understand that if (Obama) backs off and says 'Listen, I talked about some of these things on the campaign, but as we look at these problems that we face today and as I see the depth of the challenges that we face, the budget numbers that we have, we simply cannot deliver these things.'"

And there you have it. All those people Obama urged to hope so fiercely about a brighter future will in all likelihood still be hoping by the end of his first term.

Parade of promises

I've heard no such candour from a Republican strategist, but if I was able to inveigle one of them into talking frankly about that party's promises, the answer would probably sound much the same.

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised at this, after 32 years in this racket, most of them covering politics in some form.

But as the economic crisis here has deepened and the political surface under the candidates' feet has abruptly warped, the rhetoric of this campaign has come unmoored from reality. In fact, I don't think I have ever seen such a disconnection.

Don't believe me? Listen to the non-partisan Tax Policy Centre.

"President Obama," according to its analysis, would in his first term spend something like a trillion dollars more than he takes in if all his promises are kept. "President McCain," says the centre, would overspend by about a trillion and a half if he did the same.

Clearly, that sort of spending, either directly or through tax giveaways, is not on.

The U.S. national debt is reaching monstrous proportions. If it keeps ballooning, debt service payments will eventually tie the government's hands.

At that point, the options are pretty stark: The government will either have to cut public services drastically, something the American public would not tolerate; or raise taxes, something that will make the American public very angry indeed.

When will reality intrude?

But this campaign isn't over yet, which means it is not time to start acknowledging reality.

So, U.S. voters, having enthusiastically participated in years of irresponsible borrowing and spending, are now being promised what they desire above all else: a painless path out of the calamity they themselves created.

McCain rails about the victimization of good, hard-working Americans by "corruption on Wall Street and in Washington."

Obama castigates unscrupulous lenders. Main Street America, he declares, must be protected from Wall Street. Both men promise severe reckonings for the villains.

McCain's campaign would even ride to the rescue. As president, he says he would use hundreds of billions of tax dollars to buy up shaky mortgages, thus saving millions of homeowners from their own bad investment decisions.

Meanwhile, says McCain, in practically the same breath, Barack Obama is a socialist.

His evidence for this is Obama's remark to a voter in Ohio that wealthier Americans, people who make more than a quarter of a million dollars a year, should pay a higher tax rate, and that government should "spread the wealth around."

Making the rich pay

McCain says he'd cut taxes for everyone. Making the rich pay more, says his campaign, is just class warfare.

The crowds at his rallies lap it up. Socialism! Statism! Communism! (I've actually seen that last one on a sign attacking the Democrats.)

Never mind that making the rich pay more, otherwise known as progressive taxation, is already a pillar of American government. Never mind that McCain, the anti-socialist, supported making wealthier Americans pay more just a few years ago.

And never mind that his running mate, Sarah Palin, is governor of Alaska, the beneficiary of more "socialistic" federal wealth-spreading than any other state.

Palin would rather talk about something else: the suggestion by certain Democrats that Americans should gladly pay their taxes.

"Joe Biden calls higher taxes patriotic," declares Palin, her nose wrinkling with scorn as the Republican crowd boos lustily, "but to some, it has sounded like socialism."

Hold that thought

Now, the Bush administration, which, incidentally, is Republican too, is in the process of carrying out the largest corporate bailout in history.

The Treasury has substituted its judgment for the verdict of the free market, using tax money to decide which companies should survive and which should fail.

It has coerced banks into making the government a major stockholder and now it's considering a pastel version of McCain's mortgage plan, using tax money to guarantee home loans that never should have been made in the first place.

But maybe I haven't made the point here clearly enough. So here's how Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann sums it up: "If there's any socialism," he says, "It's coming out of the Bush administration, not the Obama campaign."

Not that what's coming out of the Obama campaign is particularly responsible.

In the twisted end-world of this campaign, Barack Obama is presenting himself as a tax cutter. Yes, he says, he'd make a few rich people pay a little more, but his overall message is that 95 per cent of Americans would pay a lot less taxes under an Obama presidency, presumably with a Democrat-controlled Congress across town ginning up the social spending mill at the same time.

Ask the Obama campaign, however, how it would pay for big commitments like universal health coverage and the answers start getting fuzzier.

There would have to be cuts elsewhere, they suggest. Nothing specific, though. Perhaps less foreign aid. We'll see.

Here, in fact, is a recent quote from the orator himself, a man who has characterized the current economic crisis as the "final verdict" on an era of failed conservative trickle-down philosophy: "My tax rates are lower than Ronald Reagan's! Don't let them fool ya! Don't let 'em bamboozle ya!"

Obama delivered the line with a straight face. And the crowd cheered.

Nothing like being told what you want to hear. And the American voter, sitting in front of the television, cursing politicians in general, is hearing just that.

 This time next week, though, it will likely be a different story.