Editor's note: Will Cain, a CNN contributor who appears on "In the Arena" weekdays at 8 p.m. ET, is a media entrepreneur, small-business owner and host of "Off the Page" on National Review.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
New York (CNN) -- One of these days, I want to make a list. Actually, I want to make two lists of liberal pundits, commentators and politicians.
On one, I will list all of the people who are incapable of or unwilling to have a serious discussion about the budget crisis. On the other, I will list all of the people who are simply wrong. It might look something like this:
To understand the difference between the two lists, you need to understand the difference between "Catwoman" and "Hard Ticket to Hawaii." You see, both movies are bad. Both are horribly written, display no character development and have incomprehensible plots. But while "Catwoman" thinks it can suck you in with fancy casting (Halle Berry ... so, granted, it was a valiant effort), it ultimately leaves you pissed that you gave away $10. Meanwhile, "Hard Ticket to Hawaii," a 1987 B movie starring four Playboy Playmates, has action sequences that are off by a couple of beats and a random snake appearance, but it's endearing.
The difference is honesty. One group is trying to put one over on you. The other is being honest about what it's offering. We need an honest debate about the hard choices we face in our national budget crisis, and we're not getting it.
Many people disagree with -- even despise -- Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare and Medicaid reform proposal. But they must admit that it's an honest and serious effort to reform federal health care spending, which the Congressional Budget Office says is "the single greatest threat to budget stability."
The truth of Ryan's proposal is that it will "end Medicare as we know it!" But Medicare as we know it is toast anyway. The idea that we can continue providing old people nearly all the health care they need, no matter what the cost, is unreasonable, and America can't afford that. Ryan proposes to cap the federal government's exposure to health care costs. And, yes, shift some of the responsibility of those costs to seniors.
This is a very unpopular concept. But apparently, only fairy tales are popular with Americans. According to a recent New York Times poll, while an overwhelming majority of people realize the deficit is a "very serious problem," a similar overwhelming majority do not want their taxes raised nor their Medicare altered. OK. Well. In other news, Americans abhor exercise and want to drink more Big Gulps but still look like Maria Menounos.
Ryan is telling Americans they can't have the impossible. And he'll pay the price in votes. But at least it's true.
Now it's President Obama's turn to explain the hard choices we face. No one expected him to echo Ryan and suggest cutting back on the pride of liberalism: health care entitlements. But I think it was reasonable to expect to hear this: "If you want nice things, you have to pay for them." It would have been an unpopular thing to say, but it would have been true. That, sadly, is not what is happening.
Instead, Obama is pretending that Americans can have all the nice entitlements they want (with Medicare tweaked by a panel of government experts, whatever that means), and we just have to make those greedy rich "pay a little more." This is absurd. The Wall Street Journal and National Review's Kevin Williamson have shown that we could tax the bejesus out the rich and we're going nowhere without serious entitlement reform.
An honest counterpoint to Ryan would have been to tell Americans -- all Americans -- that we're going to have to pay a lot more in taxes to keep our entitlements. Like 80% more. Similarly, if Obama were being honest, he'd quit insinuating that the "Bush tax cuts" were only tax cuts for the wealthy. And he'd quit suggesting that by letting them expire, we'll fix our fiscal problems. Letting the "Bush tax cuts" expire would bring in $3.9 trillion over the next decade (putting a nice dent in the problem). But only $800 billion of that revenue comes from the rich "billionaires and millionaires" that make more than $250,000. The rest -- the vast majority -- comes from us regular people.
And that's the crux of it. If you want nice things, you have to pay for them. That's the honesty that's missing. Americans have a choice to make: higher taxes or fewer health care entitlements. We'll probably have to choose both. But as each of us marches toward death, we can't pretend we can have all the health care we need, paid for by taxing Bill Gates a little more.
Ryan's message was honest. Obama's message isn't. And until he's honest, he belongs in the category with "Catwoman" and Ed Schultz.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Will Cain.