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Beyond the election: running the country

Most political writers these days are preoccupied with who's going to win the election. I find myself concerned over how well the next president (whoever he is) can run the country once he's elected. He will have difficulty whoever he is.

If Mr. Reagan wins (which just now seems rather likely), he will be a lame-duck president from the start. That is, he will be ineligible to seek a third term. He will have the usual ''honeymoon,'' and then people will begin picking his successor. The atmosphere will be less than electric for any big domestic changes.

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If Mr. Mondale wins, he will have the customary ''honeymoon,'' too. But will he have a historic mandate? It seems unlikely. The three big political ''mandates'' of the century were Woodrow Wilson's in 1913, which gave us the social revolution called ''the New Freedom''; Franklin Roosevelt's second-term landslide, which paved the way for the social transformation of ''the New Deal''; and Lyndon Johnson's political victory in 1964, which produced the ''New Frontier.'' All of these decisive results were momentous. Usually the American political process is apt to be less spectacular. Look at Washington right now: Congress is divided - the Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives of 165 or so out of a membership of 435; the Republicans of course control the White House and have a small majority in the Senate. Things are confused here as they normally are - sometimes it's hard to say who's in charge.

Economic problems in the next four years are going to be especially tough, I think. The nation is living beyond its means and enjoying it; the economy is almost purring with self-content. The Congressional Budget Office figures that the annual deficit could reach as high as $263 billion by 1989 on the basis of present curves, but there is actually little inflation just at present, and unemployment is down. It is a wonderful time for Mr. Reagan to run for reelection. Yet one can't help wondering: Can he keep control of things if reelected? Can Mr. Mondale impose his own proposed tax increases without a recession?

I turn back to an excellent study on the 1980 election, ''All Things to All Men,'' by Godfrey Hodgson, an English observer. It has always baffled political scientists from countries with parliaments as to how the United States, with its divided government, can go through the enormous commotion of a quadrennial election with what often appears inconclusive results.

Canada has just had an election, and the result there may well be more specific and decisive than here in the United States. Partly, Mr. Hodgson thinks it is because of the nature of the presidency. He noted in 1980:

''It lies within the president's power to disrupt the global economy or to blow the world to bits. Yet it is uncertain whether he can do what he wants to do, what he knows he must do, and what he was elected to do.'' The president is constrained by restraints the Founding Fathers wove around him. Yet the founders would themselves be surprised, perhaps. ''To a frightening extent,'' says observer Hodgson, ''the huge Washington bureaucracy has eluded the president's control.''

There is the difference between the voters' faith in ''the President'' and what he can actually do. There is the quadrennial search for a charismatic figure who will solve our problems. Often he himself is unable to enforce his will on Congress.

Till now the divided American government has pulled us through. It works best , I think, with strong political parties to help it along. It is coming in for increasing debate; every election proposes constitutional changes, often contradictory. They seem to show dissatisfaction with the system. Observers wonder. A British reviewer in The Economist says of the president: ''He is confronted by a Congress from which he is excluded ... tempted by the media to resolve his problems by making a direct appeal to 'the people'. ... But this, while it may get him re-elected, only cuts him off the more completely from the realities of government.''

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We read and ponder. We are participants in the system we discuss. It is not just a spectator sport, it is often an unsatisfactory but also a majestic process.

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