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The campaign of 'none of the above'

A lot of voters have declared their preference in the coming presidential election for "none of the above." As if in response, for "none of the below" when confronted with their own options as policy makers.

We are getting some very forthright negative statements these days during what may go down in history as the Campaign of Great Denials.

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Governor Reagan has been kept busy denying that he is a warmonger or a racist.

President Carter has been kept busy denying that he ever said Governor Reagan was.

John Anderson has had to spend an awful lot of time denying that he is anything like the other two denyers.

All three deny responsibility for blocking the debate -- they would welcome, it appears, every chance to state what they are not for.

As the debate-that-wasn't thunders backwards down the stretch, one dreads that the last word from everybody will be: "I'm not the worst candidate. Elect me."

Roy Blount Jr., the author of "Crackers," deserves credit for discovering this law of negative credibility, so operative in the 1980 race. Squinting way back at the Carter of '76, Blount concluded: "Jimmy ran on all the things he wasn't. He wasn't a racist, an elitist, sexist, a Washingtonian, a dimwit, a liar, a lawyer, a warmonger, a peacenik, a big spender, a Republican, an authoritarian, an idealogue, a paranoid, or a crook. He had found one last creditable-sim, isn'tism."

Isn'tism is based on the rule in politics that says more people cast their vote against a candidate than for one.

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Isn'tism affirms, if that's the right word: You can't please all of the people all of the time. But if you can keep from displeasing them too awfully, you'll be the winner -- or at least you aren't going to lose.

The center is getting crowded as the candidates carry isn'tism to an extreme. Mr. Carter, chatting sympathetically with big stee, and Mr. Reagan, flashing his old union card at labor, are signaling to each other's constituency: "See? I'm not as far from you as you though" -- all the time whispering over the shoulder to the faithful: "Don't worry. I'll never be as far from you as hem is."

Meanwhile, to keep up with the completion, Mr. Anderson must tell the Democrats, "I'm not a Republican," and the Republicans, "I'm not a Democrat."

Isn'tism threatens to turn politics into body language -- winks and hand signals -- with a little code talk on the side.

At its worst, isn'tism is the metaphor of the Cheshire cat. Everything that might give outline and definitely disappears, leaving only the candidate's smile.

Before we blame the candidates -- arguing in the spirit of the negative that this isn't the campaign we deserve -- we ought to look at our own code and winks and hand signals. With our "none-of-the-above" isn'tism, aren't we saying something like this to our would-be leaders? If you don't get us any closer to war, if you won't make inflation and unemployment any worse, we'll agree, "That isn't bad," and we won't vote against you.

How can a leader be more than a would-be leader under these terms? In a climax of isn'tism voters -- and non-voters -- appear to be signaling a mandate that translates thus: We acknowledge that there are extraordinary times demanding sacrifices. Go ahead and make them -- as long as it isn't me.

What can the candidates do if the voters persist in behaving as if the whole world is a referendum on Proposition 13?

Our candidates are not hypocrites to strike the obligatory posture of optimism, signaling, in spite of all the isn'tism: "America can be great again." They have to believe this, and we have to believe this with them. But nobody seems to want to say -- or hear -- that, in the future, "great," not to mention "rich," may be adjectives measuring qualities rather than quantities.

If we and our leaders had the courage to say, "Well, thatm isn't the worse thing that could happen," isn'tism could become a positive force after all.

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