Who will pick the next president?

Undoubtedly a president will be installed in the White House next January, but it is possible that none of the candidates will win the Nov. 4 election. There's a reason.

Rep. John Anderson is not likely to win, but he may garner enough electoral votes to prevent either President Carter or Ronald Reagan getting a majority in the electoral college.

The usual response to that prospect is that it would throw the decision into the House of Representatives where anything could happen and where each state, large and small, would cast one vote.

But something can happen before the process reaches that point, and what could happen is that John Anderson could pick the next president. Here is the scenario which could bring that about:

It is not impossible that neither Mr. Carter nor Mr. Reagan will get a majority of the electoral votes.

It is not impossible that Mr. Anderson could carry several small states or one populous state, giving him 30 to 40 electoral votes or more.

And what might happen in the electoral college? As originally conceived by the framers of the Constitutions, the electoral college would be free to deliberate, to negotiate, and to reach an independent decision, as they used to do before American political parties came into being.

There is no reason not to expect that John Anderson, if he gets a handful of electors, would consult with them about how they should vote. Thus he could quite conceivably tip the scales in favor of the candidate -- Carter or Reagan -- whom he thought came nearest to his views during the campaign. At this point I would not be able to guess who his recommended candidate would be.

There is approximately one month between the election and the time that theh electoral college must transmit its vote to Congress. Plenty of time for anything to happen.

All of these unpleasant possibilities suggest to me that the time is at hand to abolish the electoral college and provide for the direct election of the president and vice-president. Majority rule is the essence of the democratic process.

On another point to do with electing a president, it strikes me that Mr. Carter is getting frightfully skittish about debating his political opponents.

He gave the narrowest tactical reason for not debating Sen. Edward Kennedy -- that the contest was already settled. But it wasn't settled two months earlier while the President was clinging to the Rose Garden. Mrs. Carter has argued that her husband did not need to debate Kennedy because his position on the issues was amply clear. That's not the reason for debate. The purpose of political debate is to permit each candidate to challenge the validity of the positions which his opponent is taking. To say that the President's positions are well known should not exempt him from having to defend them against critical challenge.

And now Mr. Carter is announcing that while he will be willing to debate Ronald Reagan as the Republican nominee, he will say no to John Anderson, the independent candidate. Reagan says he will debate them both, but not Carter who gives no sensible reason -- only that "he will not debate a third- party candidate." I wonder if he won't change his mind when he sees the prospect of Anderson drawing more votes away from him than away from Reagan.

Ever since the Kennedy-Nixon fact-to-face confrontations in 1960, presidential debates have become a valuable and accepted part of the political process. It really ought not to be open for the nominees to spurn for tactical reasons a part of the campaign which is so useful to voters. The candidate who does so may well find himself hurt, not benefited.

One final comment: The course which Senator Kennedy pursues at the Democratic convention may well shape his political future -- or lack of it. If he works in good faith to shape the national platform at points which seem important to him and joins with the President to unite the party for the campaign, he will be furthering his nomination in 1984. If he carries his anti-Carter crusade through the convention, he could emerge as a fractional leader of the New Deal liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

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