We insist that our presidents should have clear and practical ideas for improving the economy, increasing economic and social justice and promoting peace in the world.
And yet our chief screening device -- the presidential primary -- focuses almost entirely on such matters as personality, quick-wittedness and oratorical skill. It's a bit like trying to find a general capable of leading an army into effective combat by testing his ability to entertain the troops.
The evidence that the candidates have even thought seriously about the fundamental issues exists almost solely in seldom-read position papers.
Dartmouth College thinks it has devised a more appropriate test. It has commissioned a small group of nationally known scholars to prepare papers on eight crucial issues that the next president will face and, taking advantage of its New Hampshire location, has invited the candidates to present a major address based on one of the topics. Question-and-answer sessions would follow each presentation.
"Our purpose," says Richard Winters, director of Dartmouth's Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for the Social Sciences, "is to present to the candidates of both parties for their reaction some solid scholarly thinking on the various issues of direct concern to them. We hope, thereby, to further the education of our students and to focus and elevate political discussion and assist voters who must discriminate among them in choosing their preferred candidate."
It's a terrific idea.
The authors of the papers are careful to lay out as thoughtfully as possible -- though not always dispassionately -- the choices and dilemmas that a president would have to face.
In his paper on welfare, for instance, Irwin Garfinkel of the University of Wisconsin raises the fundamental dilemma of whether our policy should give priority to reducing economic insecurity, on the one hand, or reducing dependency, on the other. It then deals with the growing prevalence of female-headed households, the efficacy of work requirements and such matters as child-support enforcement.
Yale University's James Tobin, in his paper on the federal budget and the economy, provides the basis for a solid discussion of such issues as protectionism, trade imbalance and monetary policy and asks how, and to what degree, a president should try to reduce the federal budget deficit.
Other papers, all of which have been made available to the candidates, declared and probable, include: "After the Reagan Revolution: How Do We Govern?" by Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute; "Competitiveness, American Industry and World Trade," by F. Michael Scherer of Swarthmore College; "Federal Government and Education Policy," by Denis Doyle of the Hudson Institute; "American Foreign Policy in the Third World," by Paul Kreisberg of the Carnegie Endowment; "Conducting Foreign Policy in a Democracy," by Kenneth Thompson of the University of Virginia; and "Preventing Nuclear War: Options for American Policy," by Morton Halperin of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The proposed format is for each candidate to choose an evening between this week and Dec. 5 to speak on one of the issues to an audience of Dartmouth students, faculty and community members. Tentative plans call for TV filming of the sessions and free satellite distribution for rebroadcast.
Much of the public attitude toward the candidates will, of course, continue to come from campaign speeches, press reports and formal debates. There's nothing wrong with that, so far as it goes.
The problem is that these devices give too much weight to a candidate's oratorical skills, television mastery and wit. Any test for employment patterned after our traditional presidential test would be subject to legal challenge as insufficiently job related. The Dartmouth series, an idea that ought to be picked up around the country, could supplement the traditional campaigning in a way no position paper ever could.
It is, as I say, a terrific idea.