The three presidential candidates -- Carter, Reagan and Anderson -- are already getting ready for the fall campaign.But they are not the only ones who should get ready for the campaign. There are others; besides the campaigners, there are the campaigned.
That means us, the voters who are going to be campaigned at. We need to examine how to become more alert to the false tones in campaign oratory and more discriminating in assessing the fair and the unfair in what the nominees are saying to us about themselves and about each other -- especially about each other.
It happens that the President recently gave a campaign speech to a group of state Democratic Party chairmen who had gathered in Washington. The White House indicated that Mr. Carter was trying out some of the themes he plans to use on the stump.
Some of the things he said suggest that one develop some voter's Rules for Self-Protection which would be equally applicable to all campaigners.
Rule One: When any candidate cries "demagoguery" at his opponent without specifying concretely what demagoguery he is talking about, reject it because it is a meat- axe epithet.
Example: In his talk to Democratic leaders Carter said he expects his Republican opponent to wage a general election campaign of "demagoguery . . . quick fixes . . . and simplistic solutions." That may or may not prove to be true but it seems to me that we voters ought to duck for cover and reserve judgement until the offending candidate produces the evidence. Until he exhibits his bill of particulars we ought to rule it unproved.
The fact is that one man's simplistic solution" is another's statemanship. In his Harvard address earlier this month former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance implicitly accused the Carter Administration of engaging in "simplistic solutions," but he, too, left his allegation unspecified -- and he wasn't even running for office!
To restate Rule One for voters' Self-Protection: Reject all undocumented allegations and descriptions. Wait for proof.
The president tried out another campaign theme which will need refinement or withdrawal. He said that a central concern of the American people will be to decide "who will be president, who will be responsible for peace or war."
Press dispatches reported that later press secretary Jody Powell "denied that Carter's reference to 'war and peace' was a code phrase intended to suggest that Reagan might lead the country into a war." He added this explanation: "Carter only meant that voters in a general election tend to treat their vote more seriously than they do in a primary."
I find it a little difficult to relate this "explanation" to what the President actually said. This leads to Rule Two for the Self-Protection of Voters: When the press secretary of any of the nominees has to "explain" or attempt to explain away what his candidate has said, be suspicious.
I do not, of course, intend to apply these and other rules to check campaign oratory to Mr. Carter alone. There will soon be opportunities to apply them both to Mr. Reagan and Mr. Anderson evenhandedly.
One question: Would you like to know how President Carter's chief political adviser, campaign chairman Robert Strauss, evaluates Carter's chances and at what point he will conclude that he is winning or losing? This is from Mr. Strauss's own scenario:
Mark down on your calendar the date of Oct. 10, a little less than four weeks before the voting. If by date, he says candidly, the trend of inflation is down , unemployment is dropping, interest rates are down, and employment is moving up , then Mr. Carter will be re-elected.
But isn't that a pretty risky forecast which many observers are not likely to forget? Perhaps Mr. Strauss overlooked the fact that only once in this century has a recession been as short as six months; most recessions have lasted at least one year.
That would make Oct. 10 an ominous date by chairman Strauss's calculations.