With the second Reagan inaugural more than two months old and the next Iowa presidential caucus and New Hampshire primary nearly three years away, we are as close as we ever get to a "down" period in presidential politics. And right now is the time to institutionalize presidential debates for the 1988 general election and all future presidential elections.

The experience with presidential campaigns and debates since 1960 tells us two important things.

First, the American people value very highly the chance to catch a glimpse of the candidates for president without the producers, directors and puppeteers who always surround them. The degree of public interest is demonstrated by the massive audience for the recent debates.

Second, efforts of presidential campaigns to control their television message have intensified. The techniques of the Nixon campaigns in 1968 and 1972, which were the subject of expos,es at the time, are today more and more commonplace. Each day a single prepackaged, carefully controlled image is prepared for the voters.

Debates are welcomed by the voters because they are the most effective antidote to this trend toward more and more candidate-packaging. The 90 minutes of hand-to-hand combat in a debate expose new dimensions of the candidates and provide a significant test of each candidate's knowledge, judgment, humor and ability to make an effective argument.

The value of the debates does not lie in how many votes are changed. The debates provide the best opportunity for voters to confront the strengths and weaknesses of the two candidates in a manner they may escape merely by trying to follow the day-to-day political coverage on the evening news.

Further, the debates ally give the candidate who is trailing a chance to reopen consideration of his candidacy. Events that prolong consideration of the alternatives are healthy for a democracy.

Last August and September, as chairman of Walter Mondale's campaign, I negotiated for several weeks with representatives of President Reagan over the number, timing and format of the 1984 presidential debates. Fortunately, those negotiations led to two presidential and one vice presidential debate. In 1964, 1968 and 1972 similar negotiations either never occurred or led to no agreement and no debates.

In my opinion leaving the decisions about when, whether, and how to debate to the two nominees in the post- convention period does not adequately protect the interests of the voters. In 1960, 1976, 1980 and 1984, there were 4, 3, 1 and 2 debates respectively. In 1964, 1968 and 1972 there were none.

When there were debates, the length, timing, format and venue were the subjects of endless bickering and in the end were determined by the candidate who had the least political need to participate in the debate. Surely this is not the best way to organize such important events.

Now is the time to institutionalize presidential debates. President Reagan cannot seek reelection. A large number of potential candidates in both parties is likely. The only certainty to the nominating process is that it will grow longer and longer. And perhaps most important, the candidates are more susceptible to broad-based political pressure early in the process than later. Clearly, we should take this opportunity to make presidential debates a permanent part of the political landscape.

I propose that we create a broad bipartisan effort to get all candidates for president in 1988 to declare at the moment they announce their candidacies that they are prepared to participate in general election debates if they get the nomination. In addition, each candidate would agree to participat again in 1992 if elected president in 1988.

There should be a program of three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. The presidentials should be held on the fourth Sunday of September and the second and fourth Sundays of October. The vice presidential debate would be held during the same period. The length of each debate would be 90 minutes.

We have an unusual opportunity for the leaders of the two parties to join together, for labor and business to work together, for good-government groups of all kinds to come forward, and even for Congress through joint resolution to help guarantee presidential debates. We can build a force that is formidable indeed. We can make an offer no candidate for president can refuse. No laws need to be passed, no minor fights need divert us. This is plainly and simply a political opportunity for those of us who believe presidential debating is important. Let's get to work.