Constitutional themes - for real presidential debates

NOW you see them, now you don't. Presidential candidates surface to ``announce'' at least three times. First they announce they're thinking seriously about a subject of enormous consequence to all Americans - their running for the White House. Then they announce they've finished thinking and either are or are not running. Then they declare ``officially,'' which has more to do with notifying the Federal Election Commission than electrifying the American public. This done, the candidates mostly disappear, to be sighted from time to time scurrying about Iowa and New Hampshire like ants. This introductory game began on the Democratic side with former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt on March 10 and reached a pinnacle of sorts this week with front-runner Sen. Gary Hart's announcement. The entries will stretch ahead for months - Sen. Joseph Biden in June, Vice-President George Bush in September.

Are we really going to get the mileage we should from all this presidential talent?

This is the Constitution bicentennial year.

By comparison with the Founders' debates, much of what we're going to hear from this year's candidates will be trivial.

Why not give both focus and elevation to this year's pre-campaign effort, which otherwise will prattle on in the form of the overextended talk-show interview?

Presidential scholar Thomas E. Cronin contended in these columns yesterday that current public issues, from the Iran-contra affair to the nuclear freeze to balancing the budget, should be debated by citizens in the context of the Constitution. Terrific idea! And who better than the presidential candidates to lead off?

Is the contra war in Nicaragua constitutional? Is it seemly?

Who is responsible for balancing the federal budget?

A Cronin proposal: Should a Joint National Security Committee (of Congress) be formed, to consult with the president and major Cabinet members, especially when the US is weighing the use of armed force?

We've had enough of airport Tarmac and talk-show candidacies.

Why not make the candidates work intellectually, the way the founders did in writing the Constitution? Start the debates this autumn in Philadelphia's Constitution Hall - on national security, economic, social, and political issues. Then let the candidates take their arguments out on the campaign trail to grass-roots America.

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