I THINK Ronald Reagan can succeed if he will profit by the mistakes of Jimmy Carter. When the people elected Jimmy Carter, they thought they were electing a preacher, but he didn't preach. The only time he preached was in his energy speech in 1979, and he was so criticized for the sermonette he gave that he backed off. Right now people are as they were then, hungering for a little hellfire and blood of the lamb, not positions or statements from the teleprompter.

Reagan has a great opportunity, which he will probably fail to take advantage of out of timidity. People are in quite a mood now to hear some eulogies and serenades about the virtures of American democracy and also on the subject of right and wrong and sin. The hour calls for a philosopher with evangelical overtones. It hasn't occurred to a president in so long to give a real sermon as opposed to an exegesis about the state of the nation. Of course, I'm talking about something that's not going to happen, but it's a great opportunity -- and it could work.

The mistake Carter made in that malaise speech in 1979 was in trying to weave together all of those energy statistics and practical explanations with moralizing. The moralizing was far more effective. People were just waiting for Carter to give speeches in which he would make those imaginary snowballs the way all the TV evangelists do. You know, they put their hands up and make imaginary snowballs. They were just waiting for him to do that and to say, "You know what you've been doing, I know what you've been doing, we're not kidding each other. You're all out there cheating on your wives and your husbands. You're being irresponsible toward your children. You're letting your communities sink in a sump of decadence and corruption, and you're encouraging lust and pornography on all sides. It's no secret and it's time that we did something about it. The time is long past when we can endure this cesspool of immorality." He should have gone on and on. People would have loved it.

Americans love to be preached at, as long as you don't insist that they change. I'm reminded of a play by Shaw which has an old politician and his young idealistic aide. The old politician has a campaign coming up and he keeps saying to his aide, "Just remember one thing, in this campaign it's going to be principles, principles, principles." The young aide says, "Sir, principles without programs are platitudes." The old politician: "Yes, exactly, now you've got it."

Many things are going in favor of the United States now. We're in a "can't miss" situation, except for one thing, which is lack of a commonly agreed upon set of ideas and values that tell everyone why we should believe in ourselves, why it's important that we prosper, why it's important that the rest of the world consider doing things our way. We've been in a mood for so long where we say, if somebody else in the world doesn't want to do it our way, they're probably right. You may think I'm simple to suggest it, but I can't think of the last time a president of the United States has stressed that our way is the right way.

Beyond the idea of becoming a moral force, I think Reagan has a mandate to get the government off our backs. People thought that Jimmy Carter was going to do that, but for Carter it was another missed opportunity. It should be easier for Reagan. Carter, after all, was a Democrat, and the federal bureaucracy was built largely by the Roosevelt administration. It wasn't simply Roosevelt's fault. The war did more to create the federal bureaucracy than the New Deal did.

Unfortunately, there already appear to be some signs of timidity on the part of the incoming administration. They have been leaking the idea that, well, there is not all that much you can do about the size and scope of government. But it isn't locked in. This is something everyone will be waiting for. Practically every working individual has a different thought when you say, "get the government off your back." For some people, it's tax relief. For some people, it's the end of paperwork that has become ungodly and monstrous. For other people, it's an end to humiliation from petty regulations and interferences.

Everyone says that liberalism is dead. That isn't true. Liberalism has won so many battles that there is very little left for it to win, and obviously it went too far.

One assumption underlying Reagan's election is that Matthew Arnold was wrong. Matthew Arnold, back about 1880, I guess, said that in addition to the upper class, there was a new class emerging -- the middle class, which he called the Philistines. He invented that term. This middle class was made up of people of sweetness and light -- another phrase he invented -- and he noted that at the time, there was a great deal of civil unrest, a great many strikes and a great many mob actions that were intolerable. He said you have to understand the lower class, the populace; they are living under an outmoded and intolerable system of government. That's why they rise up and rebel. But after people of sweetness and light are in a position to make policy, we will give them a perfect state and then they'll have nothing more to rebel about. If they are so ungrateful as to rebel, then we'll take some stern measures, because we'll be justified.

I think one of the assumptions underlying Reagan's election was that Matthew Arnold was wrong, that people are not going to sit still and accept the perfect world designed by people of sweetness and light without being asked. Again, however, I don't have great hopes that Reagan will do much about it. People who enter that office seem to turn timid. It is not just something that may affect Reagan; it happened to Carter, it happened to Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson ended up as Uriah Heep with a tab collar on, forcing his hand on televison and speaking in this unctuous, whimpering, begging voice. The people wanted more of that guy who was roaring around his ranch in his Buick throwing cans of beer at cattle. w

I think presidents become Uriah Heep because they have media advisers and they actually take advice from their staffs. Any president who takes advice from his staff has to be a little dimwitted. If a person was really first rate, I don't think he'd be on the staff of a president. Can you imagine any ambitious and really talented 45 or 50-year-old individual working on the White House staff? It's a terrible job, but presidents end up taking advice from these people and it's a mistake. It's conceivable that a really young member of the White House staff might be worthwhile -- it's conceivable, but I can't think of any examples.

A president always has the power to be himself, and he usually does best when he decides, "Well, I'm going to be myself." That was true of Truman and it was true of Eisenhower, a much underrated man.

Reagan should take advantage of something that was made fun of during the election, which is the fact that he was an actor. To me the strong point -- and I think a lot of voters responded to this, although it was never articulated during the campaign -- is that Reagan is one of the few presidents in this century who ever worked. Many of them just had their heads in the public trough and were successful at it. Reagan, on the other hand, worked hard at a very miserable job, acting, and made a success of it long before he entered public life.

By 1985, the United States should be on top of the world. Everything is going in our favor now. The entire West is prospering to an extent that very few people realize. Over the last 10 years, Western Europeans countries and Scandinavia and Japan -- the business nations -- have prospered enormously. Britain is now going through severe unemployment and we've been through a recession, but if you look at the upward curve since even the through a recession, but if you look at the upward curve since even the Second World War, it's astonishing what has occurred.

At the same time, the rest of the world is falling to pieces. The so-called emerging nations are not developing, they're dismantling themselves. Iran, which was always looked to as a model developing nation, is busily and rather merrily pulling itself to pieces. Our main opposition, the Communist camp, is in just awful shape, and its not just economic, although quite obviously nothing is working for them economically and never has.

The main reason why we should be on top of the world and why they are in ever more desparate trouble is that Marxism is finished as a spiritual force. Socialism is finished, if by socialism we mean pure socialism, a state run by one organ. Obviously socialism remains and socialists remain, but its great moral force is gone. What finished it? Concentration camps, pure and simple -- not just their discovery, because they've been discovered before -- but the universl willingness now to believe that they exist. It started with the publication of "The Gulag Archipelago" in 1973, and there has been a continual discovry since then of concentration campss wherever socialism exists, whether it's Cambodia, Vietnam, Cuba or China.

It will probably take until 1985 for everyone to realize what all this means. Even here in the United States, which has never had many ideologues, there was always a Marxist mist over the next hill and opposition to American values come from out of that mist. That mist is dissipating rapidly.

Everyone says the country is moving to the right. That presupposes that there is something on the left, but there isn't. There are 30 or 40 aging journalist and writers, most of whom probably live in Connecticut by now taking advantage ot the lower taxes.

This moral advantage we have now, plus the economic advantage, should put us in great shape later in this decade, barring a major war. That's always a card that the Soviets could play, although it's very much against their instincts to play it. They've always assumed that they would win naturally and, in fact, they've avoided war practically at all costs, thinking they were riding the freight train of history to success. Well, now it must be becoming gradually clear to them that there's a bend in the track; the train is heading back the other way. When they realize this, they might decide that war would be worth it.

If that doesn't happen, it stands to reason we will be in great shape. And we probably will have no idea why. None of it is because of anything we have done. It's what is known as dumb luck and good inheritance. Dumb luck and a big legacy have gotten more than one fool through what would have otherwise been a very dreary life.