WE'VE NEVER BEEN much taken with that business about the nation's needing to engage in the "moral equivalent of war" to over come its energy ills. Equivalence tables should be left to the chemists and war imagery to the generals. Moral and metaphorical combat, as in the "wars" on poverty and crime, tend only to confuse and misstate domestic policy choices. So we were not especially pleased to hear the President revive his moral-equivalence talk at the press conference yesterday (adding the new prospect of "war profiteering"); and we also believe that he is on the wrong side of the question of deregulation of natural-gas prices - one of the issues on which he seems to be losing in the Senate. But never mind: We say all this by way of stressing that even though we have reservations about some aspects of Mr. Carter's message yesterday concerning his Senate-mauled energy program, we think the President took some very important and praiseworthy steps toward saving the central structure of that program.And that structure is very much worth saving.

Whether anything short of divine intervention can save it at this late date is, of course, problematical. Mr. Carter's energy program is on the critical list in the Senate, where only the (relatively minor) provision granting a tax break to people who insulate their homes is even showing vital life signs. At his press conference, it seemed to us that Mr. Carter, while demonstrating the necessary firmness and determination to get his program through, also wisely refrained from making the kind of attack on the Senate that could only worsen his prospects there. Like-wise, tough as he was on the industry lobbyists, he showed an admirable awareness of the dangers of unrestrained industry-baiting - i.e., that letting the oil and gas companies have it without adding a couple of crucial qualifiers could only reinforce the convenient idea abroad in teh land that there is no energy crisis requiring anything of the average citizen, but only a giant price-gouging conspiracy among the majors that needs to be exposed for what it is. The President was careful to give any such illusion the kick in the head it deserves, emphasizing repeatedly that the American public needs to recognize that the energy predicament in which the nation has found itself is real, that it is getting worse, not better, and that turning it around and preventing a major disaster is going to cost us all something.

It is safe to say that unless Jimmy Carter takes the lead in hammering this message home to the public, the message is simply not going to get through. And unless the public buys it, the Congress is not going to be greatly tempted to vote some of the necessary but politically painful remedies into law. So Mr. Carter's display of concern yesterday and his pledge to dwell on the subject were good news. And so was his concession that enactment of desirable energy legislation is now his top priority. We say "concession" because the whole notion of establishing priorities has gone against this President's political and temperamental grain: He has wanted it all and wanted it all now . Tactically this has proved a great mistake, permitting the legislators to pick and choose among his proposals pretty much as they wished and giving some of them (most notably Senate Finance Committee Chairman Russell Long) an absolute embarrassment of measures to hold hostage for his doing their bidding on this issue or that.

Now Mr. Carter appears to have heard the complaints on this score and, to his credit, to have heeded them.Quite simply he has said of his energy plan: "It is the most important domestic issue that we will face while I am in office. And I attribute the highest possible importance to it in my own administration. I am going to devote most of my time the next few weeks while the Congress is in session trying to make sure we have a fair and adequate energy package." We will let Jimmy the Greek handle the odds on whether the President can do it. But of this we are 100 per cent certain: Without the kind of commitment Mr. Carter seemed to be making yesterday and without the kind of follow-through action that commitment seems to imply, the energy program would have been - indeed, was - dead.