JOHN MCCAIN portrays himself as an old-fashioned fiscal conservative, at a time when public and private thrift has given way to spiraling debts. In the run-up to the nation's current economic mess, under-regulated mortgage and credit card companies blithely lent money to people who could never pay it back. During President Bush's two terms, federal spending soared, even as massive tax cuts for the richest hindered the government's ability to pay its bills. Like the nation as a whole, consumers are maxed out.
A central economic question facing McCain is what to do about the situation. As he takes the stage tonight, at a convention that has stressed the time-honored verities of service and self-sacrifice, he has an opportunity to outline a more responsible Republican economic agenda than the one President Bush has pursued.
But so far, McCain has shown no such inclination, apart from a de rigueur promise to rein in pork-barrel federal spending. Indeed, making the Bush tax cuts permanent is the centerpiece of his economic plan.
Political conventions aren't the place to go for sophisticated treatments of complex economic matters. The Democrats' dark rhetoric on the economy is easily lampooned; not every American works at a moribund steel mill, and not every middle-class family is teetering on the verge of despair. And Barack Obama has indulged in his share of unfortunate protectionist rhetoric.
But the Democratic nominee also sees that anti-trade sentiment grows out of economic anxieties - and that voters' anxieties are real. The economy is in trouble when tens of millions of people lack health insurance; when financial "innovation" means selling weird securities to investors who don't know what they're buying; when the national savings rate hovers barely above zero.
So far, McCain has offered no credible solutions to these problems. Mitt Romney, an able surrogate, rehearsed the party's economic arguments in a speech earlier this week. Along with high gas prices, Romney did cite the glut of unsustainable mortgages as a source of the economy's weakness. But the solutions he tossed out - reducing regulations and mandates, for instance - were beside the point, at best.
McCain might be a maverick on other issues, but he has joined up with Republicans who think tax cuts, no matter how budget-busting, are the answer to every question. He has admitted no expertise on economics. But to gain credibility with voters, he needs to show that he recognizes the difference between giveaways to the wealthy and policies that promote wealth creation up and down the economic spectrum.