What you're really voting for

It's not what the candidates say they'll do if you put them in the White House. It's what they will do for your money once they get there.

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By Pat Regnier, Money Magazine assistant managing editor

(Money Magazine) -- The American financial system is in a state of complete, hair-on-fire chaos. Keep that in mind when you evaluate John mcCain and Barack Obama's economic plans.

The success or failure of the $700 billion mega-bailout of Wall Street will shape every economic decision the next President will make. That, in turn, means that the campaign promises of both men should be taken with a box of salt. No one knows with any certainty what the financial future holds and how the countryıs priorities will change as a result.

One thing you can know for sure: The new administration, whether it's Democratic or Republican, will face some harsh new realities come Inauguration Day in January. And reality can often make conflicting demands.

With the bailout, the U.S. government is taking on very large financial commitments to rescue the financial sector, which will make new spending plans or tax cuts that much more difficult to push through.

On the other hand, if we're heading into a recession, it's probably the wrong time for the government to be adopting austerity measures. The tough calls are just getting tougher.

So if either of these guys is remotely qualified for the job, he'll have to be a lot more flexible once in the Oval Office than he's been on the stump. (It's also easy to forget this every four years, but there's a whole other branch of government called Congress - you know, the one that actually crafts legislation.)

Still, you'd better listen to what Obama and McCain are saying they'll do. The candidates' 20-point plans add up to very different visions of how the economy works and even of how America's economic success ought to be measured.

If a President McCain or a President Obama lives up to even part of his agenda, it will make a difference not only to your tax bill next year but also to your family's long-term financial security.

Think of this election as a choice between the Party of the Pie and the Party of the Slices. Most of McCain's policies are focused on making the overall economic pie bigger, the traditional Republican approach. If there's more good stuff to go around, the thinking goes, everybody should ultimately be better off, even if a few people gobble enormous pieces.

By contrast, Obama and the Democrats are far more interested in whether the pie is sliced up fairly. Obama points to years of weak wages at the median (literally, for the people in the middle) even as overall GDP kept on rising.

Of course, both McCain and Obama say that they have the best plan to grow the whole economy, not just their favorite parts of it. And both candidates are generally market-friendly and tax-averse - we're still living in the post-Reagan era, after all.

But at almost every level, whether you're talking about financial market regulation, income taxes, retirement savings or paying for healthcare coverage, Obama is much more likely to have the federal government intervene in the name of "American families," to use his favored locution. McCain, on the other hand, puts more faith in the marketplace and both individual and corporate enterprise.

That's the big picture. Read on and you'll learn the details of what each man has planned for you and your money. You'll also get a reality check about a challenge that neither candidate seems to be facing squarely: a long-term budget deficit that threatens to take a big bite out of everybody's pie.

Job one: Getting back on track

What you'll pay in taxes

What they'll do to the budget

Your portfolion and your retirement

Paying for your health care

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