Not for the first time, Henry Kissinger is doing what he does best: thinking big or, as he puts it, conceptually. "Destiny and his own achievements," Kissinger wrote the other day in an article published on these pages, have placed President Reagan "in a position to restore for the first time in a decade and a half a national consensus on the nature and aims of our foreign policy."
Rising above particular issues, Kissinger pictured a president strong enough to take "bipartisanship beyond the least common denominator"; to ignore the tugs of his "traditional constituency" and "seize the middle ground"; to give this nation an "unambiguous vision of the world for which to strive and of the dangers to be overcome."
If it sounds familiar, it is. This is the same shimmering vision held forth by Kissinger in the Nixon years. That it proved to be a mirage then, could be laid off to the political wages of Watergate and Vietnam. What are the chances, with all that behind us and an overwhelmingly popular president freshly reelected, that it can materialize now?
Answer: slim to nil, if Ronald Reagan's past performance counts for anything. To begin with, we are dealing with an administration in which "isms" -- conservatism-vs.-liberalism, communism-vs.-capitalism -- count for far more than party loyalty. The president's own party switch makes the point.
Even more persuasive is the way his conservative "kitchen Cabinet" has stocked his administration insofar as possible with ideologues of the right. For Reagan to "seize the middle ground" across the American political spectrum, he would first have to work his way into the Republican mainstream.
He would have to be ready, for example, to confront Sen. Jesse Helms -- even though the North Carolinian won't assume the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Without being chairman, Helms made trouble enough for every moderate State Department appointee put forward by the Reagan crowd the first time around.
But even supposing the president could contain his conservative followers, nothing in the record of his first term encourages the conclusion that he would. True, he has demonstrated a readiness to be "bipartisan" when there is little partisan advantage for either side and ideology is not an issue: Social Security for one example; the MX missile for another. But those marriages of convenience fall far short of what Kissinger has in mind.
They do not compare with the kind of bipartisan coming together that launched the great postwar initiatives, most notably the Marshall Plan: a shared sense of the same threat; a bending of deeply held beliefs; a triumph of pragmatism over abstract ideology; an acceptance of common purpose.
Not much of that has been in evidence in the past four years. You can fault the Democrats for their own rigid and combative approach. But you cannot fault them for failure to accept purposes that Reagan himself could not, or would not, define.
Does he deep down, seek the removal of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua? Or is his support of the Nicaraguan "contras" aimed only at the interdiction of Nicaraguan supplies to Salvadoran rebels? If the extraction of PLO guerrillas from Beirut was the original mission for the first landing of U.S. Marines in Lebanon, was the stabilization of Lebanon the sole purpose for the Marines' return? If so, how did the success of the Arab-Israeli peace process, the defense of the Middle East against Soviet expansionism, and ultimately the world power balance become the reason for prolonging the U.S. military presence at a cost of almost 300 lives?
By resisting resort to the War Powers Act (bipartisanship enacted into law) in Lebanon and every congressional restraint in El Salvador and elsewhere, Reagan has mocked the spirit of bipartisanship -- even while claiming to seek it. There is no sign of his willingness to accept the price a president must pay for it: some forfeiture of a free hand. Past performance can deceive, the more so in the case of a president with no more elections to win. But the record does not encourage the belief that Reagan would understand what Kissinger has in mind. Still less does it suggest Kissinger understands the political realities when he argues, "No president in a generation has had a better opportunity to involve the broadest spectrum of serious opinion" than Reagan has today.
What does Kissinger suppose is Reagan's sense of a broad, bipartisan spectrum? The record suggests it is U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick on the podium at the Republican convention in Dallas, flaying Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale for every communist success since 1975 and implying a lack of Democratic Party loyalty to America -- while identifying herself as a "lifelong Democrat."