Preparing for the 1988 debates

NOT since 1968, when two vice-presidents squared off, has the United States faced a presidential election without an incumbent defending his post. Incumbents obviously shrink the field. True, President Ford endured a strong challenge from Ronald Reagan in 1976, and President Carter a painful one from Edward Kennedy in 1980; but these were hardly free-for-alls, open to all comers: Only a serious contender with an established constituency could mount a meaningful challenge to an incumbent. But 1988 is diff erent. The prospect is for a wide-open race for the nomination in both parties. If approached correctly, the contests should help whet the political interest and participation of American voters, which has lagged of late. Recommendations by a bipartisan Commission on National Elections, and endorsed by the current national chairmen of the Democratic and Republican Parties, are worth considering. Among the less controversial is a proposal to make election day 1988 a national holiday on a one-time, trial basis, to see whether voter turnout is enhanced. Also, the President and Congress would be asked to designate a National Voter Registration Day on a weekday in September or October of 1988 to ensure that more Americans wi ll be qualified to vote.

More controversial -- at least among potential sponsors -- is a proposal for the two parties to assume responsibility for presidential forums. As a practical matter, once nominees are chosen, it is usually up to the candidates to decide whether to debate, and if so when and where and under what format. With the nomination comes control of the party apparatus. The commission's proposal would enhance the role of the national parties, which would be a good thing, and further institutionalize presidential debates as a permanent fixture in American politics. Unfortunately, it could also reduce the participation of the League of Women Voters, which sponsored debates in 1976, 1980, and 1984 as ably as the requirements of the rival campaigns would allow. There need be no monopoly on being host to public campaign events. The role of women in American politics also merits enhancement, and the league should be dealt into whatever series of forums, debates, or both is eventually scheduled for 1988.

The commission would also raise the federal legal limit on personal contributions to presidential campaigns to $2,500, from $1,000, but would not change the $5,000 limit on political-action committees. The Senate this week looked at limiting PAC contributions -- approving the idea but deferring action. It should consider a full tax deduction for individual campaign contributions, for limited amounts, when it takes up major tax reform shortly.

Expected on the Republican side for 1988, among others, are George Bush, Jack Kemp, Howard Baker, Robert Dole, Alexander Haig, Paul Laxalt, and Donald Rumsfeld. For the Democrats: Gary Hart, Edward Kennedy, Mario Cuomo, Richard Gephardt, and Joseph Biden. Whatever the eventual candidate clusters, these mixtures -- including a vice-president, senators, congressmen, a governor -- must be evaluated and compared. Committing the field to forums could entice an overabundance of prospects into the races -- st ill a risk worth taking.

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