THIS PUSHING and shoving and threatening and intimidating and general chicken-playing that we now see in connection with setting the terms for this fall's presidential debates is standar. There is always a flurry of such advantage-seeking on the part of candidates who are in the process of agreeing to take part in televised debates. So, first, discount all the palaver about how they are only trying to arrange conditions that will serve the public interest. They are trying, as candidates do, to make the debates, as much as they possibly can, extensions of their own public relations and gimmickry.
But if there is a single virtue to the kind of debates over which the candidates are now arguing, it is, as Jim Karayn and Joseph Foote say in an article on the opposite page today, that they are not promotions staged by the candidate and his media manipulators. They occur -- or at least should -- in a setting that, if far from ideal, at least is one the participants do not control or rig, a setting that provides a relatively fair test of their arguments and that can make it at least difficult for them to elude issues they are uncomfortable with. These debates are a form of job interview, and the prospective employers deserve to ask the questions and set the rules.
The League of Women Voters Education Fund (which also has a statement of its position on the op-ed page today) is neither a perfect nor a perfectly nonpartisan or objective organization. No organization is. But it comes as close to being the right sponsor for these encounters as any now existing in the land, and it is certainly also qualified by experience to preside over the presidential debates. The League took the initiative and the worries (and the heat) last time. It did a creditable job with the Republican debates it sponsored this spring. There is really no reason for Jimmy Carter's ostentatious shopping around for another venue, except that he wants to bend the League to accept his take-it-or-leave-it terms. We hope it doesn't.
Mr. Carter has talked an awful lot about debates and debating, but he has so far managed not to do any of it this year; and he has also managed to keep adjusting his position on the general value and specific conditions of debates between himself and other candidates to his own immediate interests. Mr. Reagan, whose interest happens to coincide with what the League has proposed, is in the singularly fortunate position of being able to defend its stand.
You don't have to believe that the League is the anointed instrument of God or that it alone at all times should have a lock on these affairs or anything else absolute and sweeping to think, as we do, that the League has earned the right to be the sponsor of this fall's debates. And as sponsor, its terms should prevail. We wish the National Press Club would not make itself available as a means for the candidates to evade the terms League has tried to set. Mr. Carter wants to damage the independent candidacy of John Anderson, which he calculates is a threat to his own, by keeping him out of the first debate. We don't see why Mr. Anderson shouldn't be on. The president's people are saying that Ronald Reagan is supporting the League's position because he is "scared" of facing off with Mr. Carter. Maybe he is. But Jimmy Carter sounds at least as scared of a debate in which John Anderson takes part.