The mood of the nation is conservative, much more so than I thought, and more so than Sen. Dick Clark of Iowa thought, or Sen. Tom McIntyre of New Hampshire thought, or Sen. Floyd Haskell of Colorado.

True, there were local factors at work in those liberal losses totally unrelated to the sort of issues that come to mind when we think of liberals vs. conservatives. In Iowa, for example, Clark was probably beaten for his stand on abortion for the poor, a question that many people see as essentially religious.

It's also true that this election provides some liberal wins. Carl Levin, the new Democratic senator from Michigan, is an example. So is Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois. David Durenberger, the new Republican senator from Minnesota, spared us from having to listen to wild conservative tax theories proposed by Robert Short.

But the fact is that liberal losses in this election outnumbered liberal gains. It was not a conservative sweep. But it was a conservative victory. What does it mean for liberals?

First, it seems to me, it means a period of quietism. Americans are tired. Most of them of voting age have lived through three wars, the churnings resulting from the movement toward racial equality, the programs of the Great Society and three assassinations. Most recently, they discovered during Watergate that the national leadership was dishonest. It is no wonder that they are tired.

Second, I think we shall probably have a period of tidying up. Conservatives and liberals ought to agree that bad programs should be junked and good ones made more efficient. Only recently, for example, we have discovered enormous graft and waste in the government programs to aid minority business. That is liberal program. It is a good program. Liberals should take the lead in bringing about reforms that will make it a workable one.

Rep. Abner Mikva (D-ILL), a liberal spokesman who once again survived a strong election challenge, argues that many liberal programs have been mistakes and ought to be dropped. He cites school busing to achieve racial integration as one of them. My point is that liberals ought to use this period of quietism to find new or improved ways of achieving liberal goals.

Third, it will be important to remember that the people of the United States did not vote to surrender the idea of purposeful government. Conservatives may try to read the election results as a mandate for the meat ax. But unless the pollsters are wrong, the people favor some form of national health care. They favor wage and price controls. They voted for tax relief, but most of them wanted government to decide where to cut budgets and how.

Finally, it seems to me, the election results suggest that liberals would do well to stick with Jimmy Carter. He is not their ideal leader. He has suggested no great national effort. When he does advocate a program, as with his energy bill, everybody yawns. The sweater by the fireside was the real message. Carter is surely the most conservative Democratic president since Grove Cleveland.

But he appears, in the light of the election returns, to be the perfect president for the times. He is quiet; he is fair-minded; he is efficient; he is undemanding. He appears to be giving Americans just about what they want. Which is to say, a rest.

If liberals don't rally around him, they may get something a lot worse.