To debate or not debate -- is that the question? From the point of view of the presidential candidates, it may be. But from the point of view of the public interest, there is no question that a series of debates involving all three leading candidates -- John Anderson, Jimmy CArter, and Ronald Reagan -- is in order.
Both past experience and present circumstances make strong arguments for debates this fall. The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon and 1976 Carter-Ford debates reached 50-59 percent of potential American housholds. In each case, the ratings for the three-debate series dropped after the first encounter, but the total audience reached was vast.
There is no such thing as an unimportant presidential election, but the problems facing the nation at this time and the issues on which lines are sharply drawn indicate that this could be a crucial one for the United States. Paid advertising and personal appearances could not do as much as a series of TV debates to inform the electorate as to where the candidates stand on such matters as inflation, unemployment, energy, defense, arms control, environmental protection, women's rights, and others.
The debates would not answer every question on every issue for voters, nor would they reveal all about the candidates' abilities and character, but past experience indicates they would tell viewers much about each man's knowledge on key domestic and foreign concerns, sharpness of wit and logic, response under pressure, and "intangibles" such as inspiring confidence and having a "presidential bearing."
It is these intangibles which seem to have influenced President Carter's attitude toward this year's proposed debates. Carter campaign aides admit that he sees no reason to appear on the platform with Congressman Anderson and thus lend "presidential stature" to the independent candidate.
On the other hand, the President has said he is willing to debate Mr. Reagan "one-on- one," apparently feeling that he would fare well against the former California governor.
Both Anderson and Reagan have reason to feel that it would be to their advantage for at least the first debate to be a three-man affair. This is the format for the Sept. 21 debate planned by the League of Women Voters -- if Mr. Anderson reaches the 15 percent cutoff point in poll-assessed popular support.
Should Anderson not be able to marshall the needed 15 percent support in the polls set as a minimum by the League, Carter might get his way anyhow. This would be unfortunate -- for the public as well as the independent candidate. The Illinois congressman is a factor in the election and a clear alternative to the major party nominees.
There has been much discussion as well on the debate format. The League would follow that used in 1960 and 1976 -- questions put by a panel of journalists, with limited response and rebuttal time. A debate in which the candidates could speak more directly to each other and spend more time on specific issues would probably increase audience interest and be more deeply informative.
But whatever the format, televized presidential debates are in the national interest. As in the past, the incumbent President seeking re-election has the power to turn them on or off. I would be a wise and statesmanlike move for Mr. Carter to agree to debate Anderson and Reagan before a nationwide TV audience.