President Carter can scarcely pick up any points with the electorate by refusing to join a three-way presidential debate. The politically motivated refusal makes him appear petty and unstatesmanlike. Certainly the public interest is served by the League of Women Voters' decision to invite independent candidate John Anderson to participate. Mr. Anderson has demonstrated that he is an important factor in the campaign, something even Mr. Carter acknowledges, and therefore deserves to have access to this media event and to the broad voter attention it is bound to attract. for the sake of fairness and a dignified presidential posture, it is to be hoped that Mr. Carter will reconsider his decision, something which seemed possible as negotiations continued at this writing.
Unfortunately, the true purpose of debates -- to bring to the fore and clarify the issues on which voters will go to the polls -- seems all but lost in the frenetic political game they have become. No one is fooled by the political factors that dictate the candidates' concerns. President Carter clearly is afraid a three-way debate will enhance the Anderson candidacy to his disadvantage. He wants a two-way debate with Ronald Reagan because he is drawing abreast of him in the polls and feels it would give him the upper hand. Mr. Reagan, for his part, prefers three-man debates that ostensibly would hurt the President. Yet one can just imagine Mr. Reagan's position if the roles were reserved.
How to cut through these political considerations, which admittedly it is unrealistic to expect the candidates to ignore altogether, is the problem. If we had our druthers, we would like to see the league's three-man debate followed by one-on-one debates involving all three candidates: between the President and Mr. Reagan, between the President and Mr. Anderson, and between Mr. Anderson and Mr. Reagan. The league presumably would not agree to back such a format in view of its earlier guidelines for four debates, including one between the vice-presidential candidates. But other sponsors -- the National Press Club, for instance -- could do so. In any case such debates would offer the American public a more concentrated, meaningful look at each candidate and his views.
This is to warn, however, against giving to these televised debates the overriding weight they seem to have assumed. It disserves the objective of good government to convey the impression that a candidate's worthines for the nation's highest post must stand or fall on how he performs before the television cameras rather than on how he has performed in office or on what his positions are. Jousting in public with a political opponent shows up a candidate's mettle too, of course. But it is a question how much the debates manage to disclose the true and significant differences between contenders. In them the candidates themselves are trying desperately not to stumble into a political quagmire the way Gerald Ford did with his inept comment about Eastern Europe. They have come fully prepared with stock answers to expected stock questions and stock rebuttals. Their caution tends to prevent spontaneous and genuine exchange.
The format of past presidential debates, moreover, has not abetted such a lively exchange. With journalists asking the questions, the debate becomes as much a press conference as a direct give-and-take between the debaters. The questions tend to be unrelated, making it difficult to focus on issues and resulting in vague and noncommital responses. It is difficult to know how to inject into today's TV format the kind of depth and incisiveness that characterized the old Lincoln-Douglas debates. But this is something to which the league ought to give careful thought. One proposal made by analysts of the 1976 Carter-Ford debates is that each debate deal only with one major issue, with each candidate given sufficient time for extended remarks and several opportunities for rejoinder.
How, in other words, can the television debates get beyond the platitudes and set speeches heard on the campaign trail? And, we hasten to add, beyond the posture, mannerisms, and voice of the candidates to what they really think and are? That is the challenge if the debates -- and the political process -- are to become something more than television entertainment.