Your editorial (Feb. 11) on presidential debates brings to mind once again the debates maneuvering we experienced not too long ago here in California when our state League of Women Voters worked on behalf of both gubernatorial and senatorial debates prior to the November '86 general election.
The public may well recall that due to candidate concern with proper image and controlled exposure, our proposed debates never materialized. It is encouraging to note that in 1987, the question is not whether presidential debates should occur, but who should be the sponsoring organization.
As your editorial points out, the political parties have announced their desire to take over the presidential debates. To quote Nancy Neuman, national president of the League of Women Voters, "It's a nice, safe little idea. Safe for the official candidates, but lousy for the voter."
The question then arises as to the proper role of the political parties. Both the national party chairmen, Paul Kirk for the Democrats and Frank Fahrenkopf for the Republicans, say they want to improve the quality of the American political process. The league supports that goal. Yet we question whether party control of presidential debates would serve any purpose other than managed campaigns that are all surface and no depth, all image and no substance. If the parties are really interested in improvement, shouldn't they be working on the real problem--getting rid of appalling campaign practices they now support and finance?
By common agreement, 1986 set a record for the slickest, most negative, vituperative and manipulative campaign in recent history. Perhaps this deliberate strategy served the goals of those in charge of the elections as the candidates avoided rather than debated important issues. The parties cooperated in insulating the candidates from the issues rather than exposing them to free and open exchange of ideas.
Who paid the price for this manipulation? The League of Women Voters believes that ordinary citizens--and democracy itself--suffered. The real price of the 1986 campaign was the highest citizen turn-off and the lowest voter turnout ever recorded in a midterm election.
Neither Chairman Fahrenkopf nor Chairman Kirk did anything to stop these assaults. Indeed, they helped pay for them. Now they want to be rewarded with the "clout" that sponsoring the presidential debates would surely give them.
There is little doubt that both the Democratic and the Republican parties need better standing with the American public. They are convinced that managing "debates" on national television limited to their own two candidates would give them what they need.
There's another way, however.
If the parties want clout, let them do it the old-fashioned way; let them gain it by earning the respect of the American voter. They could jointly pledge to work for cleaner, less manipulative, more factual, more issue-oriented campaigning. They could agree to mount and fund campaigns that put their candidates closer to the people. They could agree to break the power that professional media consultants and managers have over the candidates, the parties, and our political process.
The League of Women Voters Education Fund is proceeding with its plans to sponsor presidential debates in 1988 as it has done in 1976, 1980, and 1984. We expect the candidates to participate.
Rancho Palos Verdes
Broder is president of the League of Women Voters of California.