SOMETIMES IN THE COURSE of a political campaign, I feel like shouting: "Yeah, but what about us?" This urge overtakes me whenever the candidates start to concentrate on one another so much that they forget that a campaign is not only about winning, but also about informing the public. This must come as news to Jimmy Carter.
It was Ronald Reagan, though, and his 11th Commandment about never speak ill of another Republican, who first prompted me to wonder if we guys, the voters, were not being forgotten. The trouble with the Reagan commandment is that it has nothing to do with you and me. Maybe it is wonderful for the Republican Party, but it stifles debate. I, for one, would prefer if they were not so nice to one another and instead said what was really on their minds.
Now, however, Carter has gone Reagan at least two better. He seems to have a commandment for every contingency. His 11th was not to leave the White House to campaign, his 12th was not to debate Teddy Kennedy, and his 13th is not to debate John Anderson. His 14th may be not to talk to anyone and just wait until the election is over before he again opens his mouth.
The thinking behind this strategy is not hard to discern. Carter knows there is nothing in it for him if he debates Kennedy, a man he has seemingly beaten. Winners don't debate, because they don't have to, and losers love to debate because they have nothing to lose.
With Anderson, Carter's reasoning is pretty much the same. A presidential debate would only enhance Anderson's standing and his claim to being a real live, legitimate candidate. It would put him on a par with both Carter and Reagan and this is something the politician in Carter tells him is not the smart thing to do.
In all makes perfect sense -- sound strategy and all of that. The trouble is that it has nothing at all to do with you and me. It does nothing to open up the debate. It does nothing to pump ideas into this so-far sterile and drowsy campaign of cliches and bombast. And it gives none of us an opportunity to see each of the major candidates in action, mano-a-mano -- a chance to measure one against the other. Carter would prefer to be measured only against Reagan.
The fact of the matter is that we already have a three-man race. The polls tell us that. They say that as of mid-May, something like 29 percent of the voters said they preferred Anderson. Carter got just 31 percent and Reagan, a winner with just one commandment to his name, got 35 percent.
Of course, there is one hitch. The poll was predicated on the assumption that Anderson had a chance to win. This is a mighty big assumption, inasmuch as it is the history of all independent candidates that they tend to do far worse in the actual balloting than they do in the polls. Jimmy Carter knows this full well, and it is his intention to ignore Anderson, hoping that he will somehow go away.
Politics aside, you would think that Carter as president would have sort of an obligation to come and explain himself -- take on all comers, debate, campaign, the whole ball of wax. You would think that as a minority president (in the polls) and as one who just barely won the last time out, he would want to increase his margin -- allow himself to be compared to Reagan, Anderson and God-knows-who else -- and win with some sort of mandate.
But he won't. He's hunkered down, trying not so much to win as not to lose. It's a stingy strategy that might bring him yet another narrow (and probably hollow) victory, but it deprives you and me -- the voters -- of an opportunity to measure the man -- see how he stacks up against Reagan and Anderson and see, incidentally, how they stack up against him. It just could be that after a debate the bloom will be off the Anderson rose.
At the moment, though, it's all inside baseball -- something of a closed shop. Carter is waging a campaign that's by and for politicians, with rules set by them -- designed to reach the goals they want for the reasons they want, even going so far as to try to keep Anderson off the ballot. It's a sound strategy; it's a good strategy. But it leaves just one question unanswered. It goes like this: "Yeah, what about us?"