Washington — Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan may be joking but, if they are, I am convinced the nation's voters are not amused. What they are doing is engaging in a petty debate about the debates as if the election might conceivably turn on how one can outmaneuver the other to extract some partisan advantage.
It seems to me that such ward-heeling conduct, unworthy of the office they are seeking, can only hurt them; it degrades the democratic process. If it keeps up much longer, it will enlarge the mood of "none of the above" which has already caught many voters in its grip.
One central fact needs to be brought into focus. These debates do not belong to the candidates. They are not their possessions to use to manipulate to their own purposes. They belong, not to the candidates, but to the voters themselves. They have been brought into being by the scrupulously nonpartisan agent of the public, the League of Women Voters Education Fund. It is eminently proper that it should set the conditions under which the candidates participate.
The public pays enough to help Carter and Reagan run their campaigns the way they think best -- a total of $58 million from the federal Treasury to spend as they wish. They ought to be big enough to let this one aspect of their campaigns -- the debates -- be handled in a way the League believes will best serve the voters, instead of trying to push the League into doing it in the way which the candidates believe will best serve them.
What are these presidential debates really for? A member of the League's Citizens Advisory Committee, Jim Karayn, has put it well in referring to them as a kind of "job interview" as one means of helping the voters decide whom they prefer to hire for the next four years.
Some weeks ago the League of Women Voters extended its invitations and Mr. Carter and Mr. Reagan accepted without any reservations. Then the President hedged on his earlier commitment in an effort to keep John Anderson out of the first debate. His obvious strategy was to create at once the impression that Anderson is hardly in the campaign at all and that there is no choice except between him and Reagan. His aides talked as if there might be no debates unless Carter could have his way.
Mr. Reagan can look quite virtuous in saying he will stand by the League's decision to invite Anderson to the first debate with the other two on his showning an average of 15 percent support in the principal polls. This should suit Reagan since he is convinced that an enhanced Anderson candidacy will draw more votes away from the President than from himself.
Why should Mr. Carter be so sure that Anderson's appearance in the first debate would further the Anderson candidacy? Why should he think that comparison with the President in the debate would help Anderson? It might do just the opposite.
Why should Mr. Reagan think that Anderson will draw more from Carter than from him? Unless Reagan handles himself better than he has over the major issue of China and the irrelevant issue of evolution, the opposite might result.
Let's get the debates on track -- and find out.
They have special value this year. It has been proved that they heighten public interest in the campaign and help to draw voters to the polls. More importantly, they make it possible for the millions of listeners to perceive more sharply the differences between the candidates and to evaluate those differences by having them brought out simultaneously.
The League of Women Voters has earned its credentials as the most qualified sponsor for the debates. It put on the Ford-Carter debates. There is no reason to doubt that it would handle Carter-Reagan-Anderson debates fair-mindedly.
Quite likely all the candidates will not benefit, but the nation's voters will benefit.