Debatable Carter

After President Carter's "nonpolitical" tax-paid foray into Pennsylvania, Senate majority leader Byrd might have stayed quiet in appreciation of Mr. Carter's giving up his White House captivity as the senator had suggested. Instead, Mr. Byrd asked for another step toward full and open participation in the political process -- a debate with Democratic challenger Kennedy. And again the majority leader's suggestion is worth heeding.

Ordinarily a front-running incumbent has little to gain and plenty to lose by exposing his record and his policies to rebuttal in a debate that lends his opponent the benefit of publicity by association. But Mr. Carter now risks going into the convention on a ware of indifference if not outright opposition, no matter how many delegates he brings along. One way to rekindle the interest of his own party, not to mention the public, would be to show that he is ready to stand up to a Republican in the fall by standing up to a pesky Democrat right away.

Moreover, a debate would, as Mr. Byrd said, "help our party to shape its policies, help both the candidates sharpen and clarify their own thinking, and enable the American people to better understand where each of the candidates stands."

Exactly. Democrats and other Americans ought to have an opportunity to decide for themselves how the two leading politicians in the leading American political party stack up against each other on the issues -- on the same dais. After Mr. Carter decided to campaign again, the League of Women Voters reissued its invitation to him and Senator Kennedy for a face-to-face forum. Now that Mr. Carter finds the international situation manageable enough to allow him other forms of political activity, he has no excuse for turning down the kind of discussion that would be a genuine public service.

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