Hid candidates have mostly won, his philosophy has gained acceptance to an extent few thought possible a few years ago, and he is embarked on a serious quest for statewide office in Virginia. Yet all is not well in Richard Viguerie's empire. The problem is not lack of talent or dedication, but the nature of the business itself. For Mr. Viguerie is in -- to many, he personifies -- the direct mail political fund-raising business, and in politics these days direct mail is having hard times.

The problem, at least for the conservative direct mail fund-raisers of whom Mr. Viguerie is the undisputed king, is success. The basic pitch of any direct mail solicitation, right or left, is that if you don't send in your $15 or $50 or $500 immediately, the sky will fall. Walter Mondale (or Ronald Reagan) will name all nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court and the whole Copyright Royalty Tribunal besides, Teddy Kennedy (or Jerry Falwell) will decide what your children or grandchildren will be taught in school, and Tom Hayden (or Jesse Helms) will have his hands on the nuclear trigger. The appeal is often long-winded and always shrill, usually in dead earnest and inevitably demanding an immediate response.

The problem is that the response increasingly (and to liberal as well as conservative mailings) is to pitch the whole thing into the wastebasket. It is hard to persuade conservatives that liberals are about to take over when Ronald Reagan is in the White House and, as the Republican TV ad put it last fall, it's "morning in America again." It's hard to persuade liberals that conservatives are going to set off nuclear bombs when Ronald Reagan has demonstrably not nuked anyone in five years. We are living at a time when Americans' attitudes toward political institutions and officeholders are more positive than they have been in two decades, and so it's not surprising that appeals to fear and incitations to panic -- which are what most direct mail solicitations amount to -- aren't as effective as they used to be.

A great many people, including us, will find this no tragedy. If Mr. Viguerie's company, as The Wall Street Journal says, is owed some $3.3 million from NCPAC (the outfit formerly headed by Terry Dolan), that is a case of the political marketplace's being regulated by commercial market mechanisms, which is not altogether a bad thing. Some proprietors of political committees, like the proprietors of New York City's government a dozen years ago, thought they had developed a perpetual- motion money machine. They were wrong. Mr. Viguerie will surely remain part of the political firmament. But we don't think it's much cause for mourning if direct mail, with its inevitably shrill appeal to often baseless fears and its carefully targeted incitements of sometimes tiny segments of the electorate, becomes a less important part of the political process.