Right before I went off to cover my first campaign, the 1968 New Hampshire primary, someone asked me how I was going to decide who had won. At the time, I thought it was a dumb question, but considering that Lyndon Johnson won the popular vote and Eugene McCarthy the delegates, it was actually on the mark. History, though, says that McCarthy won.

History will have to make the call on Tuesday's elections also. The Democrats picked up 26 seats in the House, added six more state houses and failed only to dent the GOP margin in the Senate. They claim a victory and the Republicans claim not much of a loss but history, I think, will say that the country split its vote. It chose Ronald Reagan but not his program.

Had the Republicans not only kept their margin in the Senate but also limited Democratic gains in the House, surely the victory would have been the president's. It would have been the mandate he sought by personally campaigning -- making his presidency and his economic program the overriding issues. As it is, his stumping might have braked the building Democratic surge and, in some states, especially in the five where Democratic senatorial candidates lost by two points, rolled it back a bit.

But even by losing, he can win. He now has a Congress he can lambast for failing to pass his programs and one which will probably have no real program of its own. He can call it every name in the book and, based upon past performance, he will. And it will be quite a performance indeed -- the president doing what he does best. Toward the end of the campaign, for instance, he even managed to blame the Democrats for eliminating school prayer. It was the Supreme Court that did that.

On a substantive level, in fact, Reagan may just be saved by the results of this election. The president has already proven to be remarkably adept at painting himself into a corner. At about the same time his own advisers were projecting deficits of $200 billion and lamenting that in the nondefense budget nothing was left to cut but entitlement programs, the president told a press conference that it would take a "palace coup" to get him to raise taxes.

Knowing the timbre of the men around Reagan, there will be no palace coup. That means that there will be no presidentially initiated tax increase and no way to substantially reduce the budget deficit. The implications of that are scary. Interest rates will rise, business will not be able to borrow money and the recession could turn into a depression.

But with Democrats emboldened and Republicans chastened, the president could act like Br'er Rabbit saying "Please don't throw me in that briar patch." The briar patch of a tax increase (or no third-year cut) plus a trimming of the Pentagon budget, is what the country needs. Congress could take these steps, but Reagan could not. He has, after all, campaigned on a platform of lowering taxes, raising defense appropriations -- and finding the money he needs in a pot of gold at the end of Arthur Laffer's curve.

The new Congress can save Reagan from himself. If the president appreciates the fiscal mess he is in, he can simply close his eyes and take the medicine that Congress may feed the country. He can always say, as he said before, that the tax increase is a tax reform act, and accept it as that.

This pragmatism is precisely what the country voted for -- Reaganism tempered by common sense. The country likes the man, loves his rhetoric but is not so crazy about the way his program has worked out. Like a suddenly rich kid on a spending binge, he has had a guardian appointed--an increased Democratic majority in the House. The country finally got what it really voted for in 1980 -- Ronald Reagan, but without his ideologically strident economic program.

So now, once again let's ask two questions. Who won the election and who lost it? The answer to both is Ronald Reagan. He lost the vast political mandate the voters never intended to give him, kept just enough to salvage his prestige, and got a Congress to save him from his own worst instincts. What he got is what he always needed -- a director.