Last year, all candidates for President - including George Bush and Michael Dukakis - agreed to a series of nationally televised debates during the 1988 election campaign.
But now that agreement is in danger of falling apart, thanks to some unseemly and unwise footdragging on the part of Vice President Bush.As a result, the debate that had been scheduled to open the series on Sept. 14 in Anapolis, Md. evidently must be scrubbed. Why? Because Mr. Bush insists he isn't ready yet and won't be until at least Sept. 20. Not ready after seven and a half years as vice president? Incredible.
What's more, Bush is starting to insist that only one debate with Dukakis plus possibly one between the vice presidential candidates will be necessary? Only one debate when previous presidential candidates have had more? Only one when there's such a long list of issues on which Bush and Dukakis hold sharply different views? Again, incredible.
This stance does more than put Bush in the awkward position of depriving the voters of repeated opportunities to make side-by-side comparisons of the two contenders for the presidency.
It also puts him in the position of repudiating a schedule for debates that had been worked out by a bipartisan commission and agreed to by the national chairmen of both the Republican and Democratic parties.
But then this foulup is at least partly what comes of letting the political parties take the sponsorship of the presidential debates away from the League of Women Voters, which has long handled them. Though the League is trying to put on its own debates, it's hard enough to get the candidates to agree to one such series of debates, let alone two of them.
As this page warned when the parties got into the act, if a candidate wants to avoid the debates or minimize them, it's easier to stall or break off negotiations with an intermediary from the opposing political party than it is the non-partisan League of Women Voters.
Americans have come to expect the televised debates, which began in 1960, to be a significant part of the campaign. Four years ago, each of the presidential debates drew an average of 125 million viewers. The voters can be expected to react harshly to any effort to eliminate the debates or even try to turn them into just an afterthought.