The President's decision not to debate

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is chief of the Monitor's Washington bureau.

The President was correct in dropping out of the Iowa debate -- but not necessarily for the reasons he cites. In discussing a wide array of topics with a few reporters over lunch at the White House the other day he said that, while it might prove politically costly, he had overruled his chief in-house political advisers and decided to forgo the pre-Iowa-caucuses TV encounter with Kennedy and Brown.

Then he went on to say that during a time of rapid change in international affairs, which is almost unprecedented, when world events might be shaped by rapid decisions made by the President and when no one can take that responsibility from the President, it is better for the President to be in Washington constantly being briefed, assessing the situation, and making judgments accordingly.

The above sentence is long -- because the President put it that way. And the additional awkwardness in the phrasing is what happens when a President lays down ground rules saying he cannot be quoted directly.

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The President also said that at a time when it was so very important that the country be united he felt that a showing of his partisanship in a debating context could possibly undercut this unity and national strength.

But Mr. Carter didn't give what was probably the best reason for not debating at this time. And that is that he just could say something in the heated context of debate that would upset the delicate balance in the Iranian crisis. Even the slightest slip could be enough to tip that balance against the hostages and, possibly, result in loss of lives. And this could happen no matter what the debate's guidelines or restrictions might be.

No president should be taking such a chance in moments of international tension. And now Mr. Carter has two crises to deal with -- Afghanistan as well as Iran.

But if the President really believes he is going to lose public support, or even some votes in the Iowa caucusing, as the result of his debate decision, he is wrong. Reporters who have been talking to Democrats in Iowa already find more people who think Mr. Carter is doing what he should be doing -- staying close to the store -- than people who say he has ducked out on a responsibility to discuss the issues publicly and answer tough questions.

Politically, the President has little to gain and much to lose by debating at this time. Wholly apart from the hazards involved and the chances of saying something that could endanger the nation, Mr. Carter risks helping revive the Kennedy campaign in such a debate.

Mr. Carter wanted the reporters to know that he thought he would do quite well in such a debate. But he really didn't show much sorrow over the lost opportunity.

Further, he was ambiguous about whether he would ever debate Kennedy. At one point he seemed to indicate that, if the hostages were quickly released, he would take on the debates. But at another point he made it clear that a decision would be made only after he assessed the political situation at that time.

The President isn't making the mistake of talking optimistically about his political future. When asked if he thought Kennedy had possibly "had it" -- as some reporters now were writing -- Mr. Carter's answer was strongly on the negative side. He still sees his struggle with Kennedy going on right up to and into the convention. At any rate, he's not going to think along any other line. And he is preparing, in detail, in every state primary and caucus for this long, drawn-out contest.

But the President seems to be growing more and more fond of campaigning from the White House. Like Presidents Ford and Nixon before him, he has come to see the advantage of being continually perceived as on the job in the White House -- dealing with world and national problems, being presidential.

Mr. Carter now is benefitting from the same White House-based advantage he had to overcome in beating Ford in 1976 -- and he is growing to like it. Yes, he'll be out on the campaign trail -- if the crises ease enough. But by and large he'll probably be a White House- based President from now on.

And debates? Does a President who is ahead in the polls debate? You could argue that he has a duty to the public to debate. But you could also argue that from his own standpoint he'd be foolish to do so -- if he can find a way to squirm out of a commitment made when he was far behind Kennedy in the polls.

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