OUR quadrennial nightmare is finally over. What, if anything, have we learned? Or what will we have learned when the promises start coming back to roost? We have learned that political commercials on television are like most commercials on television: They are wildly misleading and create a false demand for a product that generally isn't worth buying. Now this is a small thing when we are bamboozled into falling for a ``revolutionary'' laundry detergent or panty hose that will alter our social lives, but it is serious stuff when the choice of our president is at stake.
The solution is simple: Ban political advertisements from television just as we have commercials for cigarettes. Both can be hazardous to our health. But isn't that interfering with the candidates' freedom of speech, and therefore their capacity to stretch the truth beyond all recognition? You betcha. The money saved from all those ads can come right out of the federal largess that is lavished at present upon presidential candidates.
Now if our would-be leaders are so fond of prevaricating on television, let me recommend a series of mandatory debates, verbal jousts whose guidelines are controlled not by political flunkies but by impartial third parties. We should not allow front-runners and their handlers to decide how many debates there will be.
Next, of course, we must get these esteemed public servants to do what we require of our children: Answer the question. If a candidate is asked why he voted against every major piece of environmental legislation in the past session of Congress, it will not be acceptable for him to deadpan: ``I have a strong environmental record'' or ``I go camping with my children.'' Perhaps a large gong could sound from the wings after which the moderator would explain to the four-flusher that he has been detected in a baldfaced lie. This may sound a tad undignified, but haven't we learned by now that dignity has little to do with running for high office?
Now we come to opinion polls. It seems that nary a day passed this fall without a voter survey announcing who was ahead, who was going to win, and why George Bush or Michael Dukakis had sewn up a significant segment of the electorate. Besides being annoying, this trend is not conducive to a healthy campaign. For example, the news media are infatuated with these silly numerical exercises to the virtual exclusion of reporting anything else.
Can we ban them (the polls, not the media), too? Probably not. But maybe we can subvert them. Let's all agree that if we get a call from Lou Harris or Galluping George or any of them, we will lie through our teeth. If we're for one candidate, we'll say we're for the other one. If we oppose the greenhouse effect, let's say we're supporting it 110 percent. If they ask us if we're soft on crime, let's say we belong to that squishy soft fraternal organization ``Mugger Huggers.''
This brings us to the media. The press, and even more so, television (which seems to be the medium that really counts these days), covered this campaign like a wet tissue. It wasn't until the last 10 days of the race that we learned that Mr. Dukakis was, in fact, a liberal. Not once was he asked by Dan or Pete or Tom: ``Have you ever been, or are you now, a liberal?'' Nor did anyone investigate Mr. Bush's peculiar police fetish. He seemed to be running for sheriff rather than president.
And everyone knows (except, apparently the network brass) that the networks approach a presidential race as if it were the Kentucky Derby, only less important. Now heaven forbid that we infringe upon the freedom of TV to be superficial, but why don't we challenge Dan Rather, et al., to spend at least one evening a week during the stretch run examining an important issue, like whether our grandchildren will be able to live on the planet Earth circa 2050, and what the two would-be world leaders plan to do about the situation. Maybe we nonreading Americans could then determine which candidate was soft on the preservation of the species.
Last but not least, you and I should be sent to our rooms for not doing our homework. The reason we can be swayed by lying 30-second political spots or not know whom we are going to vote for until 7:59 p.m. on Nov. 8 is that we don't read enough. We sit there and watch the inane drivel oozing from the glowing box in our living rooms and think we have learned something.
The suggestions above are probably too common-sensical to be followed without some constituent pressure. We, of course, can do our part to be better voters and we can insist Congress do likewise. If our leaders balk at reforming the electoral process, we could mount a very simple national movement based on this basic principle: No reform by 1990 and we're sending every incumbent in Washington packing. Our slogan will be: No Reform and You're All Gone. It's time we took democracy back from the media specialists, ad agencies, and high rollers.