Cracks are beginning to flaw the magic combination of event and position that caused Jimmy Carter to surge in the polls and sweep to a dazzling victory in the Iowa caucuses. The results from Maine are only one sign -- and not the most impressive. Far more important are economic and foreign developments. For they announce that Carter will have to make some difficult adjustments before he can gain a secure hold on the Democratic nomination.
In Maine, to be sure, Carter won. But he had less than half the vote, and he fell 18 points below the showing indicated for him in a statewide poll taken only four days before the caucuses.
Organization and turnout cannot be blamed for the president's hollow victory. Sen. Edward Kennedy's forces were hoping for a low turnout. Their calculation a week before the caucuses was that the senator could hold Carter to 50 percent of the poll if 20,000 voters showed up. In fact, 30,000 voters showed up -- a number that Kennedyites felt would spell disaster. So what actually happened was the opposite of Iowa. As the caucuses neared, and as the voters began to focus, they turned away from the president -- a bad sign in a race just beginning to gather force.
On the economic front, the interesting news is that two heavy hitters -- Bruce MacLaury, the president of the Brookings Institution, and Barry Bosworth, a senior economist who led the administration's anti-inflation fight until recently -- have come out in favor of wage and price controls. Not because they like controls. They don't. They hate controls, but they don't see any other way out of the domestic box.
They are persuaded that what MacLaury calls the "administration's gradualist approach" to inflation "isn't working and can't work." Bosworth argued, in testimony to a Senate Banking subcommittee, that overall demand was not even significantly diminished by either the administration's budget policies or the Federal Reserve's monetary policies.
The underlying rate of inflation -- that is inflation passed on through the wage-price mechanism independent of outside shots from fuel, food and housing -- was, as Bosworth saw it, steadily rising. He said it had "risen from about 6 percent annually in 1976-77 to 8-9 percent today." He said that in the absence of a major recession, "it will go over 10 percent this year."
With that kind of inflation running, there is no hope of solving most of the country's other problems. Measures useful for promoting productivity, or improving the nation's cities, or reducing energy dependence, or beefing up defense all tend to get stretched out or fuzzed over as being too inflationary. dThus MacLaury and Bosworth are driven to the conclusion that a prerequisite for dealing with any of the country's major problems is a freeze that would first stop inflation cold.
The administration, of course, has eschewed controls and will not change at least until after the election. But a subject that was once taboo is now open for debate. It is not only raised by Kennedy. Gov. Hugh Carey of New York last week joined Kennedy in calling for a freeze. So the administration will at least have to face an opposition prepared to do something about a problem that grows steadily worse.
On the foreign front, the big development is the emergence of France as an explicit doubter of American policies in the Persian Gulf area. The French position is not new. Indeed, it expresses an enduring reality of that country's internal politics. But the French this time have the unspoken backing of the other Europeans, and they are raising questions embarrasing to the Carter administration in the sharpest way.
One set of questions has to do with Afghanistan. Apart from punishing the Russians, what exactly does the president want? Does he want a neutral Afghanistan? Or one like Finland? Or something else? And how does he expect to get it?
Whatever the answer -- and my impression is that the president and his advisers have not really come up with an answer -- it will exert less appeal in the country than moral denunciation of Russia. For it will have to acknowledge that the Russians have a special stake in Afghanistan -- a stake that the world must accept.
Moreover, implicit in the questions about Afghanistan is a ticklish question about Iran. For a main source of trouble in both countries is that fluke of history -- Islamic fundamentalism. Because it has concentrated on the hostages, the Carter administration has never formulated a policy for dealing with militant Islam. But it will have to soon, and whatever the new policy, it will also have less appeal than working for release of the hostages. p
Of course, the president has room to maneuver on all these matters. He is used to the ups and downs of events and adept at making political adjustments. But the basic fact is that events are forcing him from his present position above the battle. He is being driven out into the fray where the country will once again concentrate on his great weakness -- the capacity to govern.