IT TOOK women all those years to be recognized as "persons," and now it looks as though the Republicans have decided to try to make one of the most prominent among them a "non-person." We are moved to these cynical thoughts by Vice President George Bush's dodging and darting on the question of whether he dares to debate his political counterpart, Geraldine Ferraro, in the campaign this fall. Well, Mr. Bush says, he'll do as he is told by the strategic high command, but Lord knows he wouldn't want to do anything to divert attention from the important race between the two heads of ticket, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Mondale. Mr. Bush also seemed to forget Rep. Ferraro's name the other day. And then, at a recent press conference, the president lent his support to his vice president's grave reservations about debating.
Looks like a case of male nerves to us. To be sure, an awful lot could go wrong for Mr. Bush just in the mere psychological and emotional drama of the encounter. He would have to be careful not to appear a bully or a brute or a condescending MCP, and it would look awful if, while doing all this, he nevertheless managed to get skunked on the issues by an opponent wearing earrings. But it is also true that there are just as many imponderables and pitfalls for Rep. Ferraro. Read "shrew" for "brute" and "bully," and keep in mind that she would be entering the debate with a particular handicap: the merest sign of ignorance or confusion would tend to confirm worry about her qualifications for the job. But she is willing to risk it. Why isn't he?
We will concede that there are some tactical considerations that might make it smart for Mr. Bush to be ducking now. But we can't be the only ones who have noticed that the sudden-death risk, though great for her, is probably at least as great for him. As it was with the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, a single disproved assertion (in that case, that candidate Kennedy was so inexperienced that he couldn't hold his own against Richard Nixon) could amount to a stunning victory: by not losing, JFK won. If candidate Ferraro proved that she could "take" candidate Bush, especially on foreign affairs and defense matters, or even hold her own with him, it could be a similar win.
This is a reasonable thing to be anxious about, and taken together with other tactical reasons could probably add up to a strong political case for behaving precisely as the vice president is behaving now. But here's the rub: Messrs. Bush and Reagan should remember that what they are doing is not exactly risk-free either. Do they really want to go through the campaign with Geraldine Ferraro claiming that the vice president is afraid to debate her, that he is chicken? Have they thought about the laughing-stock factor? Now there's something really worth worrying about.