THE KEY QUESTION before the house in 1978 is this one: "Is America Moving to the Right?" I am convinced that it is - from the left and toward the center. The pendulum is swinging back toward home base, and we are beginning a new political moment.

In astronomy, scientist must look back billions of years to search out "the big bang" that set our physical world into motion. In recent American political life, the big bang occured only a few years ago during an imprecise time called "the Sixties."

Although already dripping with nostalgia, it is only about a dozen years ago since we first heard the words and phrases: "peace movement," "alienation," "ecology," "relevance," "women's movement," "consumerism." It was only a dozen years ago that that nice man who jogs past your house with his receding hairline and expanding waistline was yelling, "Never trust anyone over 30." It is only 10 years since a hundred American cities were in flames, since we first heard of "the New Politics" and "the counterculture," and less than that since the conclusions of Vietnam and Watergate.

Like a great physical movement, a great burst of political energy also yields a Newtonian reaction, not necessarily "equal and opposite," but powerful nonetheless.

The first great counterstrike against the 1960s occurred in the 1960s. It did not involve programmatic issues or economic ideas (the Great Society programs, essentially sound in my judgment, had the effect of institutionalizing those aspects of change that Americans did accept, while spurning change that was unacceptable to the public.) Rather, the first big hit on the Sixties dealt with social issues. Americans rejected the sense of eroding moral standards that seemed to be engendered by the Sixties mentality: crime, violence, obscenity, drugs, permissiveness, promiscuity, flag-burning. This soon became, for an extended moment, the central thrust of our politics.

The power of that social reaction to the Sixties can be measured simply. It was a wipe-out issue, so potent that both parties and all competitive political ideologies signed on. A vice president named Spiro Agnew inveighed against the "pusillanimous purveyors of permissiveness" - while Democrats donned hard-hats, put an American flag pin in their lapel and toured violent neighborhoods in police cruisers.

Then, on June 6, 1978, a funny thing happened. On June 6, 1968, with the passage of Proposition 13 in California, the 1960s ended. In 1978, the second shoe fell.

The Economic Reaction

THE SECOND REACTION - going on right now - is economic. It deals not only with property taxes, but with all the concomitants and extensions of the spasm of activity in the Sixties. And so voters are deeply concerned about all taxes, about the nature of government spending, about the economic nature of goverment itself, about the arrogance of governmentalists, about judicial and regulatory arrogance and , most specifically, about the relation of all of the above to the ongoing fact of high-level inflation.

In the first instance, in 1970, Americans said: stop eroding our values; in the second instance, today, American are saying: stop eroding our money. In each instance, the issue ended up as a wipe-out issue, dominating an election in a particularly potent way. Thus, in 1978, as in 1970, there was no argument about it, only a battalion of politicians of both parties and of every ideology scampering to get on the right side of the issue: cut taxes, cut spending, cut waste.

Something else ought to be noted: each reaction is much less than total. A great deal of the 1960s remains in our polity - probably for the better. The era we live in today is more permissive and more open than earlier times. And the idea of big government is not going to disappear, either. In each instance, however, we can expect modification, moderation, slowing down.

At the risk of doing intolerable violence to an innocent metaphor, consider this speculation: a third shoe may fall in 1979 as the nation moves into a full-scale and prolonged debate over SALT.

This shoe, too, will deal with a set of attitudes built up in the Sixties. That is likely to be so because it is unlikely that the SALT debate will deal essentially with strategic arms limitations. The SALT debate may plausibly end up being, as Ambassador Laurence Silberman points out, "an international Proposition 13."

The issue, after all, is not about how many missiles we have versus how many they have. It is about waht America's role in the world ought to be, about whether we're strong enough to carry out that role, about whether the American sun is rising or setting on the world's horizon. It is not about the "arrogance of power"-to use the Sixties phrase-but about whether we have much power left to be arrogant about.

There is, in my view, a profound sense in this country that we are a nation that remains "number one," whose sun is ascendant. At the same time, Americans feel that we have been governed for a decade now by men who are afraid to say that, or act upon it, by leaders who are for the most part sitting by impotently while American status around the world diminishes.

If that message dominates the debate, as I believe it ultimately will, men on both sides of the argument will use rhetoric making the case, in accord with the public mind, that we are strong, we will be even stronger, we are great, we will be greater. It will be another wipe-out issue, with enormous ultimate effect on our foreign policy, no matter whether the treaty passes or not. And it will represent the third, and perhaps final, reaction to the psychology of the Sixties:

Don't erode our values.

Don't erode our money

Don't erode our status.

Put another way, Americans are repealing some of the fashionable nostrums of the Sixties and reestablishing a back-to-basics mentality that believes in some simple and traditional precepts. Three of these are: stability is better than instability, rich is better than poor, strong is better than weak.

Rhetoric and Reality

Such new rhetoric is important. Rhetoric influences reality - that is the speechwriter's creed - and it is more true than we realize. That, in fact, is one of the principal lessons of the Sixties. Rhetoric - and ideas - are what move a society.

When a generation of young politicians goes out on the hustings saying "reorder priorities," we should not be surprised that half a dozen years later defense budgets are down and social welfare budgets are up. Or, remember the first "Earth Day," in 1970. Young people in California bought a new automobile - and buried it. We laughed. We shouldn't have. The intellectual counterparts of the car-buriers, deeply influenced by that same ecological mentality, are now bureaucrats helping guide the environmental establishment in Washington.

So: ideas mater. In my own strange world of the politicointellectual marketplace - where ideas are bought and sold like porkbellies on other exchanges - something rather remarkable has happened. Ten years ago conservatives were writing articles about liberals - articles about the counterculture, the New Left, the New Politics. Today liberals are writing articles about conservatives. A week does not go by without a story about neo-conservatives, hard-line liberals; the New Right.

Recently there was a great assembly of all the Sixties style, New Politics liberals in Detroit. The chairman of the meeting was Douglas Fraser, the distinguished president of the United Auto Workers. What did Fraser say? That his adversaries were "outworking, outspending, and outhustling us, and unfortunately, at times, they are outthinking us."

That's very new on the American political scene. The balance of intellectual power is shifting. It is shifting as the power of one central idea begins to blaze brightly. Of critical importance is that this is happening all over the world.

The idea that is flickering is the idea of the welfare state. It is a victim not of its failures, but of its success. The idea was to create floors - safety nets - to protect people cast adrift in a tumultuous new industrial world. These floors - social security, unemployment insurance, union protection, welfare, collective bargaining, nondiscrimination - are essentially in place today, and we are indeed fortunate that they are. We are in debt to a generation of dedicated social welfare liberals.

Is there anything more to be done along these lines? Certainly - but mostly in a tinkering sort of way. Can this program or that program be made more efficient? Can certain coverage be expanded slightly or retracted slightly? Indeed, every smart liberal today understands that his or her key task for the moment is to make existing programs work better weth less waste.

But tinkering, truth be told, does not make for intellectual excitement. And so the flame burns without its prior brilliance. This is apparent in the United States, and apparent - if one believes election returns, polling data and new policy formulations - in Canada, France, Sweden, Australia, Israel, Italy and the United Kindgdom, to name a few.

And now a new big central idea is gathering force. It concerns itself not with floors, but with ceilings. It denies the notion that rising floors mean that the ceiling must close in upon us. It asks not how to protect people from falling, but how we can create further conditions to allow them to soar on their own right.

In the economic realm, of course, this deals with what is called the markets system, or free enterprise, or democratic capitalism.

How creative a system is it really? How much good can it do without doing harm? I think we are about to find out. Already in France, in Israel, in England as well as the United States, the economic mechanics have their wrenches out, trying to free up a system whose moving parts were beginning to congeal in the cold grease of over-regulation and over-litigation. It is a worhtwhile esperiment in applied economics, and I am generally optimistic about the outcome.

The Disquieting Signs

IN BALANCE, is this rightward move toward the center for the better? I confess to mixed emotions. Capitalism in its many forms is compatible with two things people want most: freedom and rising prosperity. I also like the idea of the SALT debate leading to a reassertion of American power.

On the other hand, I am concerned by possible political distortions of the present mood. A mandate to raise high the roof-beam is seen by some conservative as a mandate to undermine the floors of the structure. In my judgment that is (a) faulty interpretation, (b) bad economics and, (c) political suicide. An expanding economy can retain the floors and raise the roof. That, indeed, is the true allure of democratic capitalism in the modern world: that it, and only it, can provide the economic stimulation to provide both a high floor and a rising ceiling.

That, too, seems to make sense; and yet one sees some disquieting signs. The National Association of Manufacturers establishes a new organization: "The Committee for a Union-Free Environment." The business and conservative community savagely attack a relatively mild and moderate labor law reform bill with a rhetoric reminiscent of the union baiting of an earlier era. News reports announce that the Chamber of Commerce is preparing to attack long-standing labor legislation.

All this, it seems to me, ignores the idea that the labor movement in America is one of the ornaments of our political democracy, a movement essentially pro-capitalist and a movement essentially allied to ideas that are central to business and conservative goals: pro-growth, pro-expansion deeply suspect of environmental excess and vigorously pro-freedom around the world.

Nothing could more quickly end the present swing of the pendulum than a concerted attack designed to undo the progress of the last half century. There is a history of political self-destruction on the right of the American political spectrum, and one can only wonder whether it will reappear soon again.

Whoever owns the flame of the Regnant Idea owns not only power, but responsibility. With such responsibility, we may see new and good things in the light cast by the new flame. Without such responsibility, this flame too will soon flicker.