Last year, while baiting Sen. Edward Kennedy, President Carter boasted: "I've never panicked in a crisis." That is the best possible qualifications for presiding over the Carter administration, which finds itself in a new crisis every month.

A headlong committment to disorder rules out squeamishness about the results. For Carter to say he doesn't panic in a crisis is surely gratuitous, like Jack the Ripper saying he doesn't faint at the sight of blood. How could he, and do what he does?

By the end of his first year in office, he was already in trouble: By the end of the second year, the country was in trouble; at the end of the third year, the entire world is in trouble. By projection, his fourth year should end with the stars shooting madly from their spheres.

Until recently, he also boasted that no American soldier had died in combat since he asssumed office. Now, thanks to his pursuit of peace, we are debating whether women should be sent into combat. Carter may soon become the first American president to dispatch American girls to defend American interests.

Yet he seeks a second term, and it looks more and more likely that he will get it. Not long ago the polls gave him the lowest proposal ratings. But he may have crossed a weird threshold that will make him unbeatable.

For a while it was easy to assay Carter rationally and find him a dud. No more. After about his 87th crisis, the nation was so benumbed by his leadership that it lost touch with what our forefathers called reality and began actually to rally behind him.

How to explain this enigma? We are in unchartered waters. Other leaders decline and fall. But Jimmy Carter, at his nadir, somehow broke into an entirely new dimension in American politics. One can only speculate.

It appears, however, that because he refused to panic, the sense that he was uniquely able to generate crises gave way to a sense that he is uniquely able to manage them. He is indeniably on intimate terms with disaster; maybe that is why he seems to have a kind of proprietary claim to cope with it.

Can any other mortal clean up after him? The very idea -- in the wake of the economic, diplomatic, military, intellecutual and moral ruin he has wrought -- flouts our notions of the plausible. To elect a leader of traditional competence, at this point, would simply be out of key with history. There is in the nation today a deepening sense that normalcy has receded irrecoverably behind us, and that to seek to restore it by ousting this president is to risk a violent discontuity with our new tradition of overlapping crises. No, Jimmy Carter has earned his rendezvous with calamity.

Previous leaders have promised us -- between assassinations and impeachments -- great societies and generations of peace. Most of them could say such stuff with a wink, or at least the kind of telltale pomposity that signified their sense of the distinction between the ritual and reality. It was left to Carter to embrace it all with zany sincerity. He actually meant it when he said, in his inaugural address, that a new spirit of freedom was sweeping the earth -- though the only visible movement was suppled by Soviet proxies on two or three continents.

The calm voices of the Carter administration -- Vance and Young and Brzezinski and the president himself -- urged us to sign treaties and normalize relations and cut military spending. Iran was an island of stability and Cuban troops were agents of stability and the Soviets has a vested interest in stability. Stability was busting out all over.

Carter now proffers himself as the ideal man to lead us out of the dream world he has led us into. It is a measure of the toll he has taken on the national sanity that many Americans seem to believe him.

And in a crazy way, maybe it makes sense. Keep your powder dry, girls.