If you have not made up your mind about whom to support for President, last night's debate about foreign policy and the ongoing economic crisis may not have helped you. Neither Republican John McCain nor Democrat Barack Obama committed a major gaffe or landed a knockout punch. Neither expressed a new idea.
So I suggest you count the debate as a draw and seek enlightenment instead in the swirl of events that preceded it. It shouldn't be all that hard to see which candidate behaved more like a President. Here's a hint: he's not the one who refers to himself as a maverick.
You'd have have to search long and hard to unearth an example of impulsiveness, head-snapping reversals of opinion and outright grand-standing as unsettling as the show McCain put on this week.
When the dust he kicked up finally settles, it will be clear that McCain was responsible for delaying a desperately-needed, bipartisan plan for coping with the most serious economic challenge the U.S has faced since the Great Depression, just to advance his campaign.
Falling behind Obama in the polls because voters believe the Democrat would do a better job fixing the economy, McCain gratuitously inserted himself into the delicate negotiations between the White House and the leadership of the House and Senate over a $700 billion proposal for easing the credit crunch ignited by the collapse in mortgage-backed securities.
McCain's intervention emboldened some House Republicans to repudiate a President of their own party and suggest their own proposal, thereby torpedoing, at least temporarily, a proposal that had united the Bush Administration, the Democratic leadership of both the House and Senate and the Republican leadership of the Senate.
Those forces managed to get the talks back on track and they may even come up with an agreement over the weekend, no thanks to McCain. He claims to revere bipartisan efforts to cope with national emergencies- but in this case, it was not country first, but his ambitions.
Not satisfied with throwing a monkey wrench into the delicate deliberations so that he could later claim to have put them back on track, McCain sowed further disruption by suggesting that last night's debate be postponed.
He never, of course, had any serious intention of boycotting the debate. He just likes hogging the headlines. It was not until Friday morning that McCain reversed himself and proclaimed that he would show for the debate after all.
His explanation for changing course was a classic: "My strong sense is that the best thing that I can do, rather than to inject presidential politics into some delicate negotiations, is to go down to Mississippi and explain to the American people what is going on and my vision for leading the country over the next four years."
Amazing. There hasn't been such a brazen case of chutzpah since a thug murdered both of his parents, then demanded mercy on the grounds that he was an orphan.
This is classic McCain, a wild Hail Mary thrown with the intention of changing the subject and shifting attention back to himself.
He displayed the same kind of recklessness in his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, even though he knows that putting such the haplessly unprepared governor of Alaska a heartbeat away from the presidency could be a recipe for disaster. After watching Palin stumble through interviews with ABC's Charles Gibson and CBS News' Katie Couric, a growing majority for voters now believe that Palin is just not up to the job.
McCain may have managed to keep his legendary temper in check in last night's debate, even though Obama at times appeared to be trying to goad him into an outburst. But judging by his dervish-like conduct during the past week, a President McCain would be far from a steady hand on the helm.
On the other hand, Obama, if he can be faulted for anything, it's for being too cool in a crisis- or in a debate. He has shown a willingness to buck his own party by saying that giving bankruptcy judges the ability to restructure individual mortgages should not be a part of the bailout, a notion that many liberal Democrats hold sacred.
His aloof, professorial style, so evident during the debate, makes it hard for him to connect to some voters, but his unflappability can also be reassuring. He comes across as a remarkably disciplined man who will not blow his stack, regardless of the circumstances.
Not that Obama's a saint. He recently has gotten down in the gutter with McCain by running televised attack ads as distorted and misleading as some of those the Republican has aired, on the issues of immigration, social security and stem cell research. By doing so, he has not only broken a pledge not to lie in his advertising, but undermined his promises to practice a new kind of politics. It's disgraceful and disappointing .
But an election is not a choice between two perfect candidates. It's about which of the two flawed politicians who debated last night is better equipped to lead the nation during what will surely be extraordinarily trying times. Would you prefer an impetuous risk-taker who is willing to do almost anything to win an election or a calm calculator who sticks to the business at hand? Would an aggressive champion of unilateral U.S. action keep the U.S. safer than an advocate of consensus building and direct diplomacy with our enemies? By now, undecided voters, you should have the information you need to answer those questions. The choice is stark and it's yours!
Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.