Who says there's no choice for president?

Sometimes it's well to examine an assertion before it becomes an accepted fact. Like the one that is being made by a number of columnists and commentators these days to the effect that, if it's Carter vs. Reagan in November, the voters are given "no choice" if they intend to vote along Democratic and Republican party lines.

These observers do not say there is no choice for themselves or even for a certain segment of the voters who share their views.

No, the whole tenor of their commentary is that both Carter and Reagan are undesirables and are therefore "no-choice" candidates for the public at large.

The usually quite perceptive Richard Reeves is among those asserting or at least strongly implying this in their columns. Reeves puts it vividly. He says it is going to be just a matter of having to choose between "a second-rate actor" or "a third-rate politician."

Ronald Reagan certainly wasn't Oscar material. But the millions of voters who support Reagan, and who feel that for the first time in years (since Goldwater) they are being given a choice and not an echo, aren't backing him because of his film career. They like his conservative approaches to running the economy and his promise of demonstrating backbone in dealing with other nations. And they believe he showed his stuff for two terms as governor of California.

Mr. Reeves and many columnists and pundits clearly think Mr. Reagan is somewhat of an ignoramus, a truly poor choice. That's their right. But they don't speak for everyone.

Actually, the "no-choice" theory comes mainly from liberals, particularly from the big cities in the Northeast and from academic communities across the country. It's a viewpoint -- but only a viewpoint. As reporters leave the Northeast and move west and south, they find that there are a lot of people who are giving three cheers for Reagan.

It is not unusual for groups of voters to feel disenfranchised in a presidential election. Often it is the right-wingers who think that they have been left out of the election processes.

It seems odd in the telling, but back in 1952 there were many conservative Republicans who thought they had no choice between Eisenhower and Stevenson. They had backed Taft, and they were convinced that Eisenhower was far too liberal for them, too much a creature, as they saw it, of the Eastern establishment.

There have always been a lot of people who think they get no choice for president. Many voters didn't like the choice between Kennedy and Nixon, or Nixon and Humphrey, or Nixon and McGovern, or, for that matter, Carter and Ford.

But it seems that we're getting something a little different this year: a barrage of views from leading columnists and commentators who seem to be saying that because they themselves think there is no choice this fall the voters, in general, share their perception.

As for President Carter, he is by no means a "third-rate politician," as catchy as that phrase is. Carter is one of the best politicians ever to come down the pike. How else could he have emerged from nowhere to win the nomination in 1976? He's great at politics, at running. His problem, it seems, is in governing, in being President. And obviously there is a sizable segment of the public -- more than 50 percent and, perhaps, growing -- who believe Mr. Carter isn't up to the job.

But Carter's rating for handling the presidency tends to rise when he does something where his supporters feel they can rally behind him. There was some evidence of that in the Michigan caucus totals, even though the President didn't quite win there. There are plenty of Americans who aren't ready to write Carter off, at least not yet, as a "no choice." This is particularly true, of course, in the South. And it is particularly untrue, of course, in the Northeast.

Now those pundits whose vision tells them that Carter and Reagan leave the public with no candidate at all do possess some hope for the fall campaign -- they say it lies in John Anderson.

But Anderson may not hold up for the liberals, who now see him as the only candidate who reflects their own dovish position in dealing with foreign affairs and whose approach to the economy would sustain the social programs now in place. Anderson, a committed Republican, may turn out to be more conservative than liberals will in the end be able to accept.

Then those columnists who express the liberal position may write that there still is "no choice," even by going outside the two parties --

The important thing to remember, we think, is that the "no-choice" position or the "there-is-a-choice" view is usually in the eye of the beholder.

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