The recent events on Wall Street and in Washington keep reminding me of that cartoon with the caption that says, “Where are we? And why am I in this handbasket?” Well, we may not be on our way to the land of fire and brimstone, but we are, without a doubt, in uncharted territory. And all the old rules are out the window. A Republican administration taking over and nationalizing private companies? The world truly is upside down. Although this economic crisis overshadows everything else on the national stage, we must look beyond the immediate situation and consider the future. The election in November is one of unusual consequence, and it’s clear that it’s more important than ever to make the right decision about who will receive your vote.

Way back in the halcyon days of late August and early September, I was encouraged by the number of people who watched the political conventions, nearly a third of the number of voters in the 2004 presidential election. True, conventions are fun to watch, more than, say, serious, wonky policy discussions. They are, after all, designed to be spectacular, akin to the old Roman notion of bread and circuses. Still, it indicated a level of interest to me that’s heartening.

But those difficult policy issues are now front and center, the most important of which was neatly summed up by the recycling of a slogan from the 1992 Clinton campaign, with a twist: It’s always the economy, stupid.

And today’s economic situation is without parallel in American history. Politicians and pundits never miss an opportunity to compare this crisis with the Great Depression, but the only real similarity seems to be in the magnitude of the problem.

The current state of affairs may, ­however, provide a golden opportunity to get a sense of how the presidential candidates act under extreme pressure. Their response to this historic and precedent-setting legislation may be as good a window as any into the way they think and perhaps even make it possible to gauge their leadership mettle before the election.

Since we are now in the middle of their mad dash for the finish line, it might be helpful to take a last look at what they say their presidential positions will be. We are all aware that campaign promises are just that: promises. And we now know that expectations based on a long history of party policy can unravel when faced with extraordinary circumstances (see above). Still, there are some fundamental differences between the candidates, and it’s up to you to decide with whom to cast your lot.

The following issues offer just two examples of how the candidates’ views diverge:

Taxes: Sen. McCain proposes making the current tax cuts permanent and reducing the reach of the Alternative Minimum Tax. He advocates keeping capital gains and dividend tax rates where they are. Sen. Obama also plans to leave the current tax cuts in place—except for couples making more than $250,000 and singles making more than $200,000: Their rates would go up. Obama would like to raise capital gains and dividend tax rates from 15 percent to 20 percent for higher-income taxpayers.

Health care: This is where the candidates differ the most, with Obama proposing to augment the current employer -sponsored system and McCain advocating moving to a private insurance market. Among McCain’s proposals: Eliminate the tax exclusion for employer-paid health insurance premiums and, using those revenues, provide refundable tax credits ($2,500 for individuals, $5,000 for families) for persons obtaining private insurance and create a guaranteed access plan for the medically uninsurable. Obama would require larger businesses to offer workers insurance or pay a tax and would create a national health plan for the uninsured and small business. He would also mandate coverage for all children.

You may have made up your mind long ago, never experiencing a moment of doubt about your decision, or you may be among the 8 percent of Americans who are still straddling the fence. Either way, please be ready to vote on Nov. 4. The system works best when all of us are informed and engaged. And with what’s ahead of us, we need to be at the top of our game.