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A message for the candidates

In the preliminaries to the presidential election, all the candidates have been asking the voters to send a message to Washington, but nobody has been sending a message to them. Herewith a few suggestions.

To the Democrats: Why do you go into the playoffs with your second team? You have tried that and lost five of the last six presidential elections.

It's true that the country is in a recession, but it's no depression, and George Bush, whatever else he is, is no Herbert Hoover. At least he looks and sounds like a president, and, as Ronald Reagan proved, the appearance of things catches more votes than the substance.

Forget about 1932. You have no Franklin D. Roosevelt. And forget about 1948. You don't even have a Harry S. Truman in the race. The president has told you he will do anything to be re-elected, and he probably will, even if he has to keep or forget his promises.

Meanwhile, keep your second team off television. Why advertise your weakness? They don't even make it clear to people that Democrats got us out of the Depression and gave old folks Social Security and the unemployed some insurance.

They don't concentrate on the gross national stupidity of the 1980s but fuss with one another about the mysteries of economics _ a sure way to turn off voters.

To the Republicans: Is it wise to keep talking about cutting the capital gains tax? Even if the revenues trickled down to help the poor, nobody understands such cuts but the rich. It all sounds like a scheme to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. Meanwhile, say a few nice things about Gov. Mario Cuomo and other Democratic dropouts; that may keep them satisfied and on the sidelines.

And don't be beastly to the Democratic candidates; these guys are your allies, not your enemies.

Also, in the name of Republican decency, forget about Willie Horton. Chuck the sly racial appeals and tricky code words that divide people.

One other thing: can't you do something about Dan Quayle? It's bad politics and bad manners for the president to insist on keeping him on the ticket. This is a decision to be made by the party in convention, not by a president who insults voters by claiming that Quayle is the most qualified substitute president.

To George Bush: please, Mr. President, stop starting your sentences with "Hey!" and waving to people who aren't there. Why have an Education President who cusses like a preacher? Why the tough guy mucker pose?

The people don't like it, and you're not good at it. We liked the old Bush, who used to speak as his father spoke against Joe McCarthy, who denounced "voodoo" economics and hated debt, who talked about getting the people together and stayed home once in a while.

Why demand a new order in the world and give us the same old political disorder and muddle at home? To say you're doing the best you can only worries us.

To the voters and nonvoters: Don't give up. If you don't like the candidates, you can write in somebody else's name.

Or the parties, if they did what they're supposed to do, could insist on nominating their best people at conventions.

None of the above is likely to decide the election. But it might make the candidates come a little closer to the truth.

Political lying used to be no worse than a bad personal habit, but now it's a science and even an industry. This calls for the revival of mocking laughter or even some justified heckling.

Otherwise, everybody "out there" and even "in here," in the Beltway, is likely to feel even worse next November than they do now.

James Reston is former chief Washington correspondent and executive editor of the New York Times.