The last things on most people's minds these days are the presidential debates of 1984. But the League of Women Voters is not like most people. Having sponsored the Carter-Ford debates in 1976 and the Reagan-Anderson and Reagan-Carter debates in 1980, the women of the league are already turning their minds to keeping this fledgling tradition alive in 1984.
As one who has publicly questioned the appropriateness of the leagues's sponsorship of these debates, I was a bit disarmed by the invitation to join sponsorship of these debates, I was a bit disarmed by the invitation to join league officers and some interested politicians, lawyers and academics in a discussion at league headquarters last week about the future of the debates.
Two things became clear during the session. The league is awfully anxious to continue as prime sponsor of presidential debates. And its leaders are probably more aware of the risks in the debate game than any of us who have criticized them from the sidelines. Naive they are not.
The league regards the debates as an exercise in civic education, which they are. But they are also prime pieces of political theater -- which guarantees that the fight over the timing, location and casting of the debates becomes a matter of major importance to the campaign strategies of rival candidates. The 1980 Carter-Reagan debate had the largest audience in television history and played a big part in the Reagan landslide.
What first bothered me about the league's sponsorship of these debates was the fact that an avowedly nonpartisan organization -- which, in fact, has constituency pressures of its own -- was playing a critical role in an affair on which a whole election could turn. To whom was the league accountable when it excluded independent candidate Eugene McCarthy from the 1976 debates, included independent John Anderson in the first 1980 debate (boycotted by Jimmy Carter) and excluded him from the last debate?
The answer is no one -- any more than the Nashua Telegraph was accountable to anyone for its now-famous decision to invite only Ronald Reagan and George Bush to its debate before the 1980 New Hampshire primary.
If the league is going to continue as sponsor of the debates, the discussion made clear, it would be better for its own sake -- and for the credibility of the debates -- if the ground rules could be laid down publicly in advance, rather than negotiated under heavy pressure and in deep secrecy with the candidates' representatives who are reading pre-election polls.
The league officers would like such standards to be worked out in advance, if only to avoid the charges of arbitrariness such as those that followed their decision to set a 15-percent poll standing as the cutoff for Anderson and other independents seeking admission to the 1980 debates.
But as Rep. Richard Cheney (R-Wyo.), who watched the 1976 debate negotiations as President Ford's top aide, reminede the league officers at the meeting, "Basically debates are a question of campaign strategy." If the league is too rigid in its rules, the upshot may be no debates -- or a debate boycotted by the incumbent.
Based on the defeats of Ford in 1976 and Carter in 1980, there is beginning to be a suspicion among campaign managers that the debates work against incumbents. That may not be true, but it will make incumbents even lmore assertive than they have been in the past in setting down conditions for their own participation. They have not been shy about arm-twisting the league officials. Looming always in such negotiations is the threat that if the league balks, some other organization can be found that will give the president what he wants -- and thereby grab the glory of sponsorship.
Is there any escape from this dilemma? Two suggestions were made. Many of the league officers and many of the kibitzers were attracted by the proposal of television producer Jim Karayn, who staged the 1976 debates, that a blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission be formed to lay down in advance "fair" ground rules for the next round of debates.
I see nothing wrong with that as a way to try to constrain the arbitariness of an incumbent in manipulating the eventual negotiations. But first I would like to see the Republican and Democratic parties challenged to join in proposing their own permanent rules for presidential debates. They are the organizations that choose presidential candidates, and it would be appropriate for them -- through a negotiating committee named by their national chairmen -- to set forth the terms of future debates, and then commit their respective candidates, through a party bylaw or convention resolution, to participate.
Cynics say the incumbent's party would never do that in advance. But permanent rules would have no long-term bias toward Republicans or Democrats and could institutionalize the debates as a valuable part of the election process.
It is a challenge the parties ought to confront, before we resign ourselves to more frantic, closed-door negotiations in the league's offices, with campaign managers using boycott threats to impose conditions on the debates that no one -- including the league -- finds easy to defend.