The American people have decided -- not with a whimper but with a bang. It may be a while before the reasons for Ronald Reagan's stunning victory are fully understood. But it is clear the election represents a resounding rejection of Jimmy Carter. The nation wants a change. Mr. Reagan deserves high credit for skillfully reading and riding the shifting national mood. He can also take the greatest satisfaction knowing he will govern with an overwhelming electoral mandate.
Whether that mandate is a call for radical or centrist conservatism is the question that now intrudes itself most sharply. Militantly conservative religious and other groups poured immense work and money into turning out of office some of the most nationally known Democratic liberals in the Senate and the House. But are the majority of Americans asking for a sharp swing rightward -- not only on the economy and defense but on such social issues as abortion, women's rights, and prayer in the schools? Or are they simply saying they want more effective administration, with less government intrusion, better economic performance, and a steadier, more forceful hand on foreign policy?
WE tend to think the latter. The fact that John Anderson and Mr. Carter together captured 48 percent of the popular vote at least tempers the Reagan sweep and suggests that the voter mainstream is toward the center side of the right -- not the extreme. More precise answers, in any case, will probably have to await the congressional election two years hence.
There is no question, however, that election 1980 gives impetus to slowing even more, if not dismantling, the New Deal and Fair Deal trends of the post-World War II years. How far does Mr. Reagan want to go? Deep in his ideological bones, the President-elect seems to stand considerably to the right of center. But, as has often been pointed out, he was a flexible pragmatist as governor of California, deftly shifting to moderate positions as circumstances warranted. In Sacramento, however, he worked with a Democratic legislature. In Washington he will face a divided Congress, with the Senate controlled by the Republicans. With key Senate committees under GOP chairmanship (the judiciary and foreign affairs, for instance), with the Supreme Court likely to face new appointments in the next four years, the potential for reorienting the country in new ideological directions is obvious.
Yet Mr. Reagan fought his campaign mainly in the conservative center. He retreated markedly from some of his old positions, adopting by the time of the second debate more moderate stands on such vital issues as arms control, US relations with China, and even his economic program. He seemed to recognize, as the campaign went along, that some of his cherished beliefs, especially in the field of foreign policy, were not substantively viable or politically attractive. The imperatives of Us foreign policy are unalterable: to reduce the danger of nuclear war, to keep relations with the Soviet Union and China on an even keel, to maintain a strong Western alliance, to respond constructively to political and economic aspirations in the third world. Any American president must address these goals.
Every new leader, in short, finds certain limits on what he can do once in the White House. But it is true that some of the most innovative economic thinking is going on within conservative circles. If these ideas can be successfully harnessed, if the Republican Party -- whose astounding gains are a tribute to chairman Bill Brock and others -- can rebuild itself and not dissipate its new leverage by ideological extremism, a Reagan administration may contribute to both improved government and revitalization of the nation's two-party system. The Democrats themselves are now on notice to reexamine old philosophical premises and search for new concepts.
President-elect Reagan, for his part, will bring to office proven executive skill, a record of good staff appointments, integrity, and a geniality and humor that warm the public and those who work with and for him. We have sometimes criticized specific positions of his. We are concerned about the influence of some of his dogmatic religious supporters on the cohesion and sensitivity of American society, and about his lack of diplomatic experience. But on the latter score there already are indications he understands the need for a bipartisan approach to foreign policy and that can be counted a positive beginning.
In the end, it may be Ronald Reagan's simple faith in America's virtues and unabashed confidence in its resilience that provide the catalyst for getting the nation "back to work again." It would be foolish to ignore the difficulties the 40th President of the United States will confront in office. It would be a disservice to underestimate the strengths he will bring to it.