10/16/2012 01:19 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

Election 2012: We Can Handle the Truth

In his recent Huffington Post blog, Bill Maher suggested that the magical thinking that underlies religion is what trains Republicans to choose unrealistic views over more rational ones.

You only have to invoke Aquinas or St. Augustine to argue that religion can go hand in hand with rational thought. But Maher's political point is well taken: Republican leaders are selling a fantasy that voters can have everything they want and not pay for any of it.

The Obama administration offers a slightly more reality-based platform that at least makes incremental improvements to our balance sheet, while preserving popular programs, regulations and services.

It's been said that Obama lacks an overarching theme to give coherence to his daily choices. But thematic link has been there all along and it has been Obama's secret to success in the past.

Fundamentally, Obama seems to believe Americans can handle the truth -- that the way forward is to discover the facts, such as they are, and devise policy that realistically addresses the challenges before us.

Obama's first game-changing moment came when he abandoned conventional political wisdom and got shockingly real about race. When he came clean about how he thought about race and how it really plays out in communities across the country, he tacitly conveyed something very true and ultimately flattering about our country: We can handle the truth.

He admitted that perfectly nice people like his own grandmother had some racist attitudes and it was okay to talk about it and to love them anyway. You can utter a painful truth and lo and behold, our public dialogue edges closer to describing reality and life goes on, improved.

Once in office, Obama discussed the financial crisis with surprising candor, balanced with a steady optimism, and the world did not blink. In recent months, he once again put aside conventional political posturing to admit his personal view that same sex marriage is a civil rights issue.

We can handle the truth.

That should be his rallying cry today, because it frames the divide between the two parties on so many issues -- on taxation, on healthcare, on the role of government, on energy policy.

To pay for all the things nearly all Americans want and expect, we have to collect taxes. This is nothing more than paying for the services that allow our society to function. It's no fun to have taxes deducted from our wages or tacked onto our purchases, but it's what grown-ups know they have to do. We can handle that.

When people show up at emergency rooms because they do not have health coverage, we pay for that through the escalating fees we all pay for doctors, hospitals and insurance. We all know that. We can handle that too.

We love our cars and probably always will, but we can't just ignore the environment or global warming. Grownups know that both things are true. We can handle that.

Nobody is pro-abortion. But having the state take a position on when life begins renders women second class citizens. Grownups can seek to persuade as many women as possible to find alternatives to abortion or minimize the need for it, without demanding government prohibition. We can handle that.

The current Republican platform plays on our infantile fantasy to have everything we want without limit or moderation. As Aquinas pointed out, "A man has free choice to the extent that he is rational." We become victims of inevitable consequences if we don't make rational choices.

To say "we can handle the truth" is to celebrate what makes America great. Despite our imperfections over our short history, we have tested our ideas against the facts, adjusted to emerging realities, challenged our own shibboleths, reluctantly faced our errors and shortcomings and emerged stronger -- the leading idea factory for the world. But if we wear national blinders and tuck the truth into the corners of our thought, we could find ourselves back in the dark ages economically and socially.

With the passing of Neil Armstrong fresh on our minds, let's be clear that you don't put a human on the moon by overlooking gravity or fudging your calculations. You break new ground by facing the challenges squarely with eyes wide open and maintaining an unshakable sense of optimism and possibility.

We can handle the truth. Truly.