To get elected must a candidate make promises he or she either can't or doesn't intend to fulfill? This question is particularly relevant to the present presidential campaign where most of the Democratic candidates are promising special-interest groups - teachers, the women's caucus, blacks, labor groups, and others - everything they want and more.
Some candidates are even promising women that, if elected, they will withhold funds from states that don't endorse the Equal Rights Amendment - a promise that isn't within the power of a president to fulfill.
At a recent breakfast with reporters Robert Strauss, that master politician, had some thoughts on the subject:
''I think that far too much has been made out of that. I remember when they asked Hubert Humphrey about this - whether he would speak this way when you are not before this group or just because you are here, his answer was this:
'' 'I must say to you that I speak far more warmly of mother on Mother's Day than I do on Father's Day.' ''
The breakfast discussion turned on the 1976 election. Strauss commended reporters for raising the question at that time of whether the Democratic Party might regret nominating and perhaps electing a man who did not have the right ties with special-interest groups, who did not owe them anything - who was, in effect, an outsider.
Q: The reciprocal of that is that they owed him nothing in terms of working with him as President. There surely is a middle ground, isn't there?
A: That's about what I am saying. You can make one case. And you can make the other case. And I believe that there is a middle ground.
But how did Strauss really view this ''pandering'' by current Democratic candidates?
''I'm not prepared to do a critique on our candidates,'' he said, ''or to say if I were running I would be doing what everyone is doing. Each one does his own thing in his own way. I understand the point you make - the point about pandering. But somewhere in between lies the right way to campaign - and a better way of doing it.''
Strauss didn't define the ''middle ground.'' He did indicate that finding that ethically acceptable position isn't easy - or without political risk. What is acceptable, of course, is for a candidate to come up with an agenda in which he details his positions on the major issues of the day.
This, too, has a flavor of a promise - but it is clearly nothing more than a statement of intentions usually put in rather broad terms. It carries the implication of ''this is what I'm going to try to do'' or ''this is my thinking on this or that subject'' rather than ''this is what I'm going to do for you, if you vote for me.''
Strauss himself will head an agenda-making and agenda-underscoring committee this fall which will address itself precisely to letting the public know where the Democratic Party stands on the issues. From its work the Democratic platform in 1984 will likely flow.
Perhaps the most fawning acts these days come from those Democratic presidential candidates who are bowing and scraping before the AFL-CIO in order to get that union's endorsement. Walter Mondale, in particular, has allowed himself to be viewed as somewhat of a trade protectionist - which he clearly isn't - as he vies for AFL-CIO support.
It is hoped that voters in the future will penalize candidates who step over the line and pander to special-interest groups in order to win their support.