Washington — The heated dialogue between the President and Senator Kennedy may or may not be good for the nation. Perhaps it is a measure of the strength of the United States that Americans and their leaders can differ strongly, and sometimes angrily, on how the President is conducting foreign policy -- even in times of crisis and delicate negotiation.
Or perhaps the Kennedy rhetoric, on Afghanistan and the hostages, has gone beyond legitimacy and become a deterrent to US interests.
If the above is debatable, this is not:
The battle between Kennedy and Carter has clearly escalated to a point where it is becoming so divisive that it already appears to be helping the Republicans in their effort to take over the presidency.
Take Senator Kennedy's words about Mr. Carter: "No president should be reelected because he happened to be standing there when his foreign policy collapsed around him." We can just see the GOP presidential candidate -- whether it is Bush, Reagan, Baker, Connally, or whoever -- citing that quote if Carter is the Democratic nominee.
Then take the President's characterization of the Senator's charges concerning Mr. Carter's handling of the hostage question as neither "true," "accurate," nor "responsible" but "very damaging to our country." Can't you just see the eyes of prospective GOP presidential candidates light up at the prospect of using this quote against Kennedy next fall, if the Senator is the eventual Democratic nominee? To be able to say that the President has in effect described Kennedy as an unpatriotic liar is a boon to the Republicans. What more would they need to incorporate in an attack?
In effect, then, the two Democratic candidates are doing the Republicans' work for them these days.
The provocation for these excesses comes, of course, from the decision of a fellow Democrat to challenge an incumbent President. When, at his last press conference, the President was asked whether the mean, nasty charges being exchanged by him and Kennedy weren't dividing the party and helping the Republicans, he replied: "Well, I might point out to you that I'm an incumbent Democratic President. I didn't ask for a challenger . . ." He sees the party-split problem. All he can say is that he isn't responsible for initiating it.
The Kennedy response is that such intraparty challenges have happened before and that they provide a useful means whereby people of the same party who differ with a president can express their views.
But Mr. Kennedy and those around him don't usually argue that the Eugene McCarthy-Robert Kennedy effort to depose Lyndon Johnson in 1968 is a relevant precedent for what they are doing today. They admit there is no great, philosophical issue like the Vietnam war that is involved today in their differences with the President.
Instead, they usually use Ronald Reagan's bid to push Gerald Ford aside in 1976 as their precedent.
There are, of course, similarities. But there are also great differences.The Reagan people argued that Ford was not an elected president -- and that, therefore, the Reagan challenge was not an effort to oust an incumbent. Also, while that long Reagan-Ford struggle, reaching right into the convention, doubtless weakened Ford and perhaps cost him the presidency, the Reagan rhetoric was pretty tame.
He didn't taunt Ford the way Kennedy is taunting Carter. In fact, for most of the time Reagan, who is a fairly gentle soul, put his differences with Ford in philosophical and ideological terms.
And while Ford certainly wasn't happy about having to deal with Reagan, he didn't get angry or even testy with the Californian publicly.
Presidents don't like to have another party member try to get them out of office through political challenge. And they hate being embarrassed by such efforts. Truman never forgave Kefauver for beating him in the 1952 New Hampshire primary. And Johnson was livid over the McCarthy-Kennedy challenge that prompted him to announce he would not run again.
Our memory tells us that strong party challenges of incumbent presidents lead to problems for whoever eventually gets the party nomination.
Kefauver didn't beat out Truman. But Truman did eventually step aside for Stevenson, who went on to lose to Eisenhower.
And everyone will recall what happened to the Democratic Party after the success of McCarthy-Kennedy. The party split was so wide and the bitterness so deep that Humphrey lost to Nixon. And it is difficult to see how Bobby Kennedy, had he been the nominee, would have fared any better than Humphrey.
All this means that the current Carter-Kennedy battle is looking more and more like Mission Disaster for the Democrats -- for Carter or Kennedy, for whoever wins the dubious honor of leading a divided party against the Republicans.