The winner -- we hope -- will be the American electoral process manifested in a big turnout of voters on election day. Scoring the victor of the presidential debate in Cleveland's Music Hall is a pretty tricky business, fot it all depends on one's political vantage point. We tend to think the outcome was more or less a draw -- with Ronald Reagan proving, with grace and command, that he is a worthy opponent of the President and Mr. Carter, deftly if somewhat stolidly, keeping Mr. Reagan on the defensive on several key issues.
The debate usefully synthesized the candidates' positions for the American people and the League of Women Voters deserves high credit for persisting in its efforts to put it on. The Carter-Reagan encounter may not have delved as thoroughly into some crucial issues as one might have liked. But it nonetheless fairly displayed the mettle of the two men.
Whether the debate itself will affect the outcome on Nov. 4 seems doubtful. But that is for the individual voter to decide as he or she thinks over carefully the ideas, intent, and character of the candidates as reflected in the TV confrontation. Despite much newspaper commentary to the contrary, the voters do have a choice. Taking the main contenders, the choice is between two very different men. Each, over time and depending on circumstance, has shifted his ideological position toward the center, but each retains a distinctive philosophical approach to government. Each, too, has demonstrated capability for governing. It the debate accomplished nothing else, it should have laid to rest the superficial notion that the nation is faced with a choice of mediocre candidates. Voters might ask themselves whether the choices are in fact so ordinary, or whether it is the nature of today's global and domestic problems which makes them seem so.
In any case, who is elected does make enough of a difference for Americians to weigh in with their thoughtful and enthusiastic participation. Forecasts of continuing voter apathy are disheartening. Only slightly more than 54 percent of eligible voters went to the polls in 1976, and disgraceful record for a nation that prides itself on its democracy. The point is that, like anything, democratic institutions must be constantly supported and renewed to flourish.
Mr. Carter and Mr. Reagan today talk about making America strong. But what is true strength? It would be the supreme irony if the nation, while keeping up its military defenses against aggressive communism, diluted its moral and political strength as embodied in its democratic freedoms -- and responsibilities -- and thereby weakened the very system the missiles and mortars are supposed to protect. Many of those Americans who returned to the United States from Cuban prisons have a fresh appreciation of those precious freedoms, of what it means to live and participate in a free society.
Casing a vote on election day is not only a matter of choosing one or another political leader, or one or another policy. It is reaffirming a commitment to a democratic political system in which power flows not from the state downward but from the people upward, in which each and every individual has a role in the process of government. One vote may not count, perhaps. But one plus one plus one . . .? Whatever the reactions to the long campaign -- and the Cleveland debate -- we hope Americans on Nov. 4 will disprove the widespread suggestion that they don't care. In a fundamental sense, the fate of the country rests not on Mr. Carter or Mr. Reagan or Mr. aderson -- but on them.