ABOUT THAT BALANCED-BUDGET PROMISE…. In the first half hour of last night’s debate, Bob Schieffer asked the candidates, “Do either of you think you can balance the budget in four years?” John McCain’s response to the question was pretty important.

Schieffer: Do either of you think you can balance the budget in four years? You have said previously you thought you could, Sen. McCain.

McCain: Sure I do. And let me tell you…

Schieffer: You can still do that?

McCain: Yes…. I will balance our budgets and I will get them and I will…

Schieffer: In four years?

McCain: … reduce this — I can — we can do it with this kind of job creation of energy independence. Now, look, Americans are hurting tonight and they’re angry and I understand that, and they want a new direction. I can bring them in that direction by eliminating spending.

Let’s flesh this out a bit. First, the McCain campaign has been far from consistent on this. It initially said it would balance the federal budget by the end of McCain’s first term. Then it said it had abandoned that pledge. Then it re-embraced the pledge, then dropped it again, and then re-embraced it again last night. Give him a few hours, and maybe he’ll switch yet again.

Second, no reasonable person could possibly think McCain is telling the truth. The federal deficit is now a half-trillion dollars. Next year, in light of the financial crisis and the government’s response, the deficit is likely soar to a $1 trillion. At the same time, McCain is pushing for massive additional tax cuts and ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If McCain were actually to try to deliver on his promise of eliminating this gigantic deficit in just four years, he would effectively have to shut down the entire federal government until 2013.

And third, if we accept McCain’s promise at face value, it’s the single worst idea he’s ever proposed. He’s acknowledged many times that he doesn’t understand economics, but it doesn’t take a genius to understand that sweeping cuts to federal spending in the midst of a financial collapse only makes things worse.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.