The New Hampshire primary demonstrates that the country is in no mood to make a serious address to its fundamental problems. Big, maybe conclusive, victories have been won by candidates who specialize in the trivialization of issues. Men with large ideas suffered what may be crippling defeats.
Ronald Regan, of course, comes out as the major winner. The former California governor buried George Bush and the rest of the Republican field. His lead was so big that he's now in position to streak to the nomination. He can build further momentum in the southern primaries coming up. Even if he does not sweep the big industrial states, he could nail down a victory in the western states where he has always done well.
In forging to the fore, however, Reagan proved once again that he is ill-equipped to deal with the nation's most pressing business. More than ever before, his language betrays intellectual flabbiness. He starts the response to every question by saying, "Well," and flashing a smile. "Sort ofs" and "kind ofs" fill out the balance of his sentences.
His concentration is on the smaller issues of the decade that has passed -- welfare fraud, abortion, gun control, and government regulation of health and safety conditions. His discussions of foreign policy seem to stop with the proposition that the United States should be respected. On energy, he claims dependence on foreign oil can be solved by deregulation of the domestic industry -- a proposition denied by the estimates of Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute as well as the Department of Energy.
Special circumstances, to be sure, weakened Reagan's opponents in New Hampshire. George Bush, by an excess of cautions, blew the lead he had built up in Iowa. Howard Baker and John Anderson appealed to the same constituency. John Connally never made a big effort in the state.
None is a perfect candidate. But all four appreciate the gravity of the problems now confronting the country. One or the other might easily recover -- especially Bush, who could rebound in Massachusetts next week. Still, their exceptionally weak showing in New Hampshire and the continued division among them raise the distinct possibility the Republicans may not field a candidate of presidential stature in 1980.
Jimmy Carter's win on the Democratic side was also stunning. Not only did he wallop Edward Kennedy in a state adjoining the senator's home fief, but he came close to the 50 percent mark that his most sanguine supporters considered unobtainable. So it is not easy to see how Kennedy can continue to fight for very long.
The senator's troubles are handwritten on the wall for policies equal to the challenge of the time. Whatever one may think of rationing or a wage-price freeze, they express the size and scope of the remedy the country needs to apply now. That Kennedy seems to have suffered importantly from Chappaquiddick shows that the country is still more concerned with private morality than public matters.
The more so as President Carter has again shown his deep-rooted incapacity to think big. His programs do not represent compreshnsive approaches, but bits and pieces stuck together and altered as circumstances require. It is typical that though he speaks of the economy as being "in crisis," his remedy is to fiddle around with a slightly tighter budget and some credit controls. It is also typical that when he summons the nation to stand up to a crisis with Russia, the clarion call rapidly degenerates into a squabble about whether women should enter combat.
After the New Hampshire results came in, the president was asked (by Sam Donaldson of ABC News) a question about inflation. In response, Carter said: "We are making steady progress in dealing wth the long-range and very difficult energy problems which lead directly to inflation."
But inflation does not flow directly from energy price hikes -- otherwise, Japan and West Germany would be reeling. Even if the president's program went into effect tomorrow and cut dependence on foreign oil by 25 percent -- which is highly unlikely -- the result would be to bring down the rate of inflation by less than 1 percent. In other words, Carter was talking rubbish.
But it is the kind of rubbish the American people apparently want to believe. So New Hampshire registers a national failure that may find expression later this year in a truly sad event -- a choice between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.