Running on Rhetoric

Presidential campaign politics these days seem be more a matter of candidates running against one another than of running on the important issues facing the country. Press reports on the primary or caucus contests cover daily scenes such as: Is George Bush just a younger version of Ronald Reagan? Will Jimmy Carter emerge from the Rose Garden to campaign or to debate Edward Kennedy? Why is Robert Dole throwing his support to Howard Baker? Brown urges that Kennedy bow out to let Brown confront Carter one-on-one.

This inter-candidate jockeying would be more interesting if it included the candidates’ records over the years—what they have done and not done apart from what they recommend or promise to do. But the personality parade does not pause much for such comparisons. Other questions dominate. Does the candidate have enough money for the next primary? Will the primary’s victor be able to keep up the momentum? Does the candidate project a loser’s image?

What a loss it is to have such a sterile presidential campaign! Here is a chance every four years, under massive media attention, to have people engage those who aspire to lead them in intensive meetings on the major issues of power and policy in American politics. Instead, the scheduling of candidates through a state is determined by the candidates and their staffs. The voters set neither the agenda nor the kind of meetings to take place.

As a result, vague generalities and slogans form a repetitive language of avoidance that accounts for the staggering boredom that afflicts the press corps covering the candidates. I often have wondered why the press does not take some time to reflect a better way to cover the daily campaign trekking by insisting on news confer- ences and having better background information on both the candidates and the locales through which they are traveling.

But the principle burden to try another way inevitably falls’ on the voters. If the subject of national health insurance is hardly mentioned by the candidates, it is up to the voters to make it a high-visibility issue. If the causes and remedies for the skyrocketing price of home fuel oil managed to be successfully ignored, it is up to the voters to focus the proper accountability. Candidates should have to consider forums suggested by organized citizens before touring thecommunity so that adequate attention can be given to local concerns.

There is encouraging preliminary activity along these lines occurring now in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The Campaign for Safe Energy (20 Hanover St., Manchester, N.H.), com­posed of local citizen groups, is asking candidates for their specific positions on nuclear power and is urging party delegates to endorse its energy platform.

For example: At an appearance in Concord, N.H., citizens asked George Bush how he could reconcile his “free enterprise” position with the notorious Price-Anderson Act (which gives the nuclear industry limited liability protec­tion after a nuclear catastrophe). Bush replied that he did not know what the Price-Anderson law was. A few days later, after numerous such questions and after he was asked whether he would support a moratorium on licensing of new plants until the Kemeny Commis­sion recommendations were implement­ed, Bush said yes.

By presenting its Safe Energy Platform at most of the 48 Democratic delegate selection caucuses in Massachu­setts, the Campaign made considerable progress toward gaining acceptance of its views.

Speaking recently on ABC’s Issues and Answers, presidential candidate Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), went out of his way to say that nuclear power is “becoming a major issue in New Hampshire. In many meetings that I attend now, there is a group tliere that is protesting nuclear power.

“And, frankly,” he continued, “I dreaded that because my record on nuclear power is clear (he is pr6-nuclear) and that can he a highly emotional issue, hut those people are handling them­selves in a very, very decent and civilized way. They have good questions. They don’t try to dominate or take away a meeting. They put their questions and listen to the answers. And we disagree on so many things, but they’re honest, decent, concerned and sensitive people, and it is contributing to the quality of the dialog on the nuclear debate in New Hampshire and people ought to watch .”

Instead of being bystanders or observers, it is time for the voters to organize in a similar fashion on other key public issues. To turn a phrase from the ’60s, if voters don’t become part of the presidential campaign now, they won’t be a part of the outcome in November.

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