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Debates and public service

WE generally approve the decision of the two major United States political parties and the announced candidates to hold four presidential debates in the fall of 1988, under the aegis of a GOP-Democratic ``commission.'' The undertaking could help advance such debates from self-service to public service. Presidential debates are not usually all that ``presidential'' - above the fray, directed at issues and not personalities. Instead, presidential debates - especially the decision whether to debate and under what conditions - epitomize the game of power and partisanship. If the candidate with the upper hand does not want to debate, he finds reasons not to do so. If he is an incumbent president, he may choose not to let an opponent share his presidential aura.

Even at this very early stage of the 1988 contest, Democrats Richard Gephardt, a congressman from Missouri, and Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, are using the challenge of a two-person debate to aid their campaigns. The nominal topic is their differing views on trade and economic policy. The strategic issue is that each wants to gain where the other holds an advantage. Mr. Gephardt wants to debate in New England, where Mr. Dukakis presumably has a leg up for the New Hampshire primary. Dukakis wants to debate in Iowa, Missourian Gephardt's neighbor state. How the two candidates' staffs manage this issue, as well as how the candidates do in an eventual showdown, could say a lot about their ability to make a presidential run.

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So steps that help institutionalize debates - making them a matter of course and not manipulation - merit support.

Note, however, that the commission, co-chaired by the two parties' chairmen, would by its makeup be inclined to exclude third-party challengers. Whatever the commission's bouquets to the League of Women Voters, which fought heroically to stage debates in the modern TV-dominated political era, the party leaderships are preempting the post-convention debate agenda. True, the league will still have a busy primary debate season as it shares the hosting, but the parties' move still has the taint of a power grab.

The party leaderships are looking for ways to enhance the relevance of their own institutions on the political scene, a relevance eroded by the candidates' independent fund raising at lower levels and public financing for the presidency, and by their own reforms toward a ``democratic'' nomination process. This step alone, however, will not restore the parties' former clout.

The parties tend quickly to become the captives of their presidential candidates' campaigns. Even more, they serve the whim of the winning candidate. So even a party commission may not be able to drag an unwilling candidate to the debate platform.

This time around, with no incumbent president in either party running for office, the commission stands a better chance of mounting debates without a hitch. Ultimately, however, it is public pressure that cuts through all the obfuscation about debates. And the League of Women Voters, arguing for the public interest, may yet again have to shame the political powers that be into staging meaningful presidential confrontations.

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