God may be in the details. But there is such a thing as making molehills out of mountains -- whittling everything down to less than size. The trivialization of issues now characterizes Washington, and that condition says a good deal about the mind of the president, the nature of his majority and the temper of the country as a whole. p
Inflation, the country's No. 1 problem, provides the most telling example. Staggering figures from the Producer and Consumer Price Indexes for January combined with a tax budget for 1981 to induce an atmosphere of crisis in the markets of this country and the world. Interest rates went almost out of sight, and talk of runaway inflation and national bankruptcy flowed from sober-sided businessmen.
To avert panic, the president has ordered a revision of the budget with an eye toward erasing the deficit programmed for 1981. A reduction of some $15 billion is in prospect. But the consultations now going forward inside the administration and with the Congress aim at finding a multitude of tiny cuts that nobody can feel or even perceive -- the budgetary equivalent of hairline fractures. Far from being an impressive move that gets out front of the problem, the budget-balancing act already shapes up as a mere Band-Aid certain to foster, after a brief lapse, another crisis of confidence.
Energy, the country's second most pressing problem, affords a similar case. Practically everybody acknowledges that considerable conservation of scarce resources can be achieved by backing utilities out of gas and oil and into coal for the generation of electric power. The president has been formally on board for such a program since mid-July. But a bill providing incentives to the utilities has only just gone from the administration to Congress. There is certain to be a battle royal about how to limit the acid rain caused by the burning of more coal.
In foreign policy, the president announced less than two months ago a major new commitment to defense of the Persian Gulf area. But the challenge that precipitated the new commitment -- the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- is daily declining in salience. West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt ended a three-hour conversation with Carter at the White House last week satisfied the United States would not take any serious action against the Soviet Union. Every step proposed by Carter has dwindled into virtual nothingness.
A new thrust in military manpower has been hung up on the question of the role of women in the armed services. Retaliation against the Soviet Union has come to center on the question of how to hold a counter-Olympics. The chance of guiding Israel into a more accomodating position toward the Palestinian Arabs was drowned in a squabble over the wording of a United Nations resolution. Leaks caused Saudi Arabia to pull back from cooperation in both defense and oil pricing. Pakistan, seeing the United States in a dither, now wants no part of an offer of military assistance.
Behind all these mini-events lie genuine dilemmas. Circumstances require an address by the president to the issues of inflation, energy and foreign policy. But Carter does not have a solid base in the country. Rather, his constituency is a diverse collection of minorities, environmentalists, consumer advocates and others interested in the quality of life. Instead of stepping up squarely to the big issues, the president takes tiny steps at the margin, fits bits and pieces of programs together and thus holds together his constituency.
That kind of crabwise motion does not come easily to everybody. Edward Kennedy is not comfortable in a straddle position. Nor is John Anderson. But it is the special genius of Jimmy Carter: it is the quality that makes him so attractive to so many diverse constituencies. He is not sensitive to opposites, he can move simultaneously and without embarrassment to cultivate spenders and penny-pinchers, corporate leaders and Naderites, Arabs and Jews.
For the time being, most Americans seem to like the president's way of doing business. There is not in the country an overwhelming sense of crisis and a deep willingness to make sacrifice. We are not prepared to join hands and leap together. On the contrary, we want pain softened and sacrifices minimized and somebody else to jump first. We favor change of an invisible, unfeelable kind, which is why despite failure after failure on the part of the administration all the crazy bounces of American politics conduce to the reelection of Jimmy Carter.