It is these words, according to many pundits, that won the election for President Bill Clinton (D) over incumbent President George Bush [Sr.] (R) in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid“. Bush enjoyed very high approval ratings during the first Gulf War, but as the war came to a close and the economy entered a recession the voters turned toward the candidate of ‘change’.

Bill Clinton, all-in-all, didn’t change much with the economy. The economy usually does its own thing and the government is best-advised to butt-out, which it has generally done through the last several Republican and Democratic administrations. In fact, by most independent analysis, federal economic policy hasn’t changed very much since President Ronald Reagan (R) took office in 1981. But the erroneous perception that Clinton would ‘fix’ the country’s economic woes turned the tide in his favor, and the perception that Bush would leave things ‘broken’ doomed his campaign.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is now running the risk of following in Bush [Sr.]‘s footsteps. As the representative of the incumbent party, McCain has an uphill climb in a time of economic weakness. He accurately paints Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) as a tax-and-spend liberal, but ultimately McCain has not differentiated his economic plan from Obama’s. In fact, when they squabble over the nuances of each-others’ plans, I’m struck by how similar they are. Yes, I believe McCain presents a better plan. Yes, given Obama’s inclination toward tax increases and big government, I doubt his promised tax cuts will ever actually be implemented (or, if they are, I doubt they will last very long).

But when both candidates voted a resounding ‘yes’ on an ill-advised 700 billion dollar bailout, I have a hard time identifying which candidate is the fiscal conservative. When both present new big-ticket bailout and government expansion plans for mortgages or health insurance or whatever else, I have a hard time figuring out which one is opposed to socialism.

I’m convinced that most Americans want a smaller government that interferes less with our economy and our lives. This is a classical conservative value that the Republican Party has abandoned under President George W. Bush (R) and the Democratic Party never believed in in the first place. McCain needs to champion these values to excite his own party’s ‘base’ and win the support of moderates who are frustrated with Washington’s fiscal policy. But time is running out, and fiscal conservative voters are rightly suspicious of McCain in light of his very public support for economic interventionism. Put us at ease, Senator McCain, and do it fast. If you don’t, you are very likely to lose this election.