At some point in most American political campaigns the public is confronted with what might be called the invective problem. One candidate or another tests the air by going beyond his rivals in partisan attack. Public response then encourages or discourages the increase of vitriol, and the potential constructiveness of the campaign is correspondingly affected. Such a point of decision already seems to be facing members of the public in 1980: Will they rise to the occasion and let candidates know they prefer responsible discussion to cutting rhetoric?
Look at the trend. In January when Senator Kennedy was trying to revive his campaign he still felt constrained to invoke the American tradition of dissent in even "raising questions about the Carter doctrine." Now he speaks of a foreign policy which "lurches from crisis to crisis." On the Republicans side, George Bush has been talking of the administration's "disastrous foreign policy." Even John Anderson, who alone supported Carter on the Soviet grain embargo, rashly charged him with "ignominiously backing down" on the Russian combat brigade in Cuba. As for GOP front-runner Reagan, who has often framed his criticism in humor, the National Review reported in February a very edged comment: When Reagan was asked whether he thought Carter was deceitful or a fool (presumably referring to a comment on Carter and the hostage situation) he replied: "I wish I could say he was a fool."
So Gerald Ford may be overlooking a few things when he asks a Republican audience, "Why have we pulled our punches on Jimmy Carter?" The sorties were already underway. Yet Mr. Ford escalated the intensity when he delivered what a reporter on the spot called "what may be the harshest attack anyone has made on Carter during the 1980 campaign." Is this the kind of campaign the public wants?
Frankly we do not. It is especially disappointing to see Mr. Ford reverting to his old congressional partisan tone after the presidency in which he went so far toward establishing the national condition described in the title of his autobiography, "A Time to Heal." Here was an opportunity, with all the attention being paid to him as a possible candidate, to enunciate that vision for America which he once looked forward to implementing in a second term; to exemplify that outreach to a broader mix of the people which his party has been seeking.
Instead, Mr. Ford indulged in such manifest overskill as: "Why do we let [ Carter] make himself the hero of disasters he alone created?" "Havoc is the word for the Carter foreign policy." "We cannot permit him to create crises that threaten our very survival . . . ."
The Carter foreign policy is manifestly not immune to criticism, nor should responsible criticism be withheld in a democracy in times of national stress; there is always the possibility it will help to prevent worse policies. But even flawed policies cannot be written off as havoc when they have resulted in advances such as the progress toward peace between Egypt and Israel, the restoration of constructive relationships between the US and African nations, the improvement in Latin American relations with achievement of the Panama Canal treaties.
To be sure, in a less widely noted part of the speech, Mr. ford said he wasn't being personal and Mr. Carter is a "descent and honest man." This was in keeping with Ford the healer. But he and the other politicians this election year must realize that, with all the divisive strains the nation is under, the time for healing has not passed -- and is not enhanced by reckless invective.