IF IT WORKED with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, might it not work with James Schlesinger and Alfred Kahn? Mr. Carter summoned to Camp David the people in his administration who work on energy policy and those who work on inflation, to see whether he could negotiate a peace settlement among them. Camp David has become important in this administration as the example of a certain political style and method.
The president believes in intense direct conversation and in going around and around the circle until the answers emerge.He has evidently concluded that this process works most effectively when he gets people away from Washington and talks with them on the mountaintop. The mountain isn't what you'd call spectacular, but it's high enough to suit his purpose.
The Camp David method was particularly well adapted to the kind of face-to-face bargaining and brokering on which Mr. Carter built the first Middle East peace agreement last September. Now he must make a series of basic decisions on oil conservation and inflation. It will be some days, evidently, before it becomes clear what conclusion Mr. Carter may have drawn from this latest retreat at Camp David. He does not want to make choices that would amount to abandoning either energy conservation or the struggle against inflation.
But, in the spirit of Camp David, perhaps his advisers will have pointed out to him that there is not necessarily any conflict here. Oil and gasoline prices have been continuously controlled for eight years, and they are now rising faster than ever. The controls themselves are inflationary. They are a crucial part of the unintentional mechanism that encourages Americans to buy more and more oil, maintaining a sellers' market for OPEC and inciting the OPEC governments to keep raising their prices.
How inflationary is it to decontrol oil prices? That depends entirely on political decisions yet to be made. It would be good policy and good economics to recapture part of those rising prices with stiff new taxes on both crude oil and gasoline. Those new tax revenues could then pay for cuts in other taxes.
The Camp David method is not infallible. But very often in political life this kind of long discussion around a table will reveal that the collision between apparently irreconcilable positions is, on examination, an illusion. That, we think, is true of the much-advertised choice between decontrolling oil prices and fighting inflation.