Washington — Former President Carter, reviewing his administration a few days after the election, gave history a hint on how to reach its judgment. "One of the anomalies," he told some visitors, "is that the things on which I worked hardest were the ones that were politically counterproductive." He then cited the Panama Canal treaties, his Mideast policy, and his human rights policy as having damaged him politically rather than helped him.
But what problem or issue did the most to deny him re-election? the President now has been asked. Was it the hostages and the public's frustrations over his inability to free them? Or was it the flagging economy? Carter aides had stressed these problems as being central to the election loss.
But the former President now thinks neither of these was paramount.
After reflecting on his loss, Mr. Carter has concluded that it was the Panama Canal treaties that did most to erode his effectiveness as President and send him in the downward direction that ended in his defeat.
Mr. Carter does not mean the political opposition stirred up by his come-from-behind victory on the Canal pacts. Instead, he now feels that the overconfidence inspired by that triumph contributed to an attitude in himself and his administration that was unrealistic and consequently quite damaging.
He has confided to friends that, after achieving victory on the Panama Canal treaties, he became convinced that, if he worked hard enough and felt the cause was right, he could win on anything -- no matter how much opposition in Congress or elsewhere.
The Panama victory was the result of a tremendous effort by the President to persuade the Senate to ratify. He spent many hours meeting individually and collectively with senators. So did Vance, Brzezinski, Hamilton Jordan, and others. In the end, the President won out -- but only narrowly.
This was relatively early in the Carter administration. From then on, as Mr. Carter now sees it, this victory colored his political judgment. He was surprised by the hard sledding he hit as he tried to get his programs through. He was in no way prepared, for example, for Congress's growing animosity to him on whatever he initiated.
Somehow, he reasoned, still turning to the apparent lessons of the Panama accords, he could through intensive effort still win out. But too often this optimism was not grounded in political realities.
Undoubtedly, Mr. Carter's early mistakes (which he later acknowledged) of pushing too many programs at the same time stemmed from this same Panama-tied optimism. The failure to set priorities kept the spotlight moving from one program to another and thereby diluted President Carter's effectiveness in dealing with what should have been his number one priority all along -- the economy.
Those who see the former President these days say that Mr. Carter and his wife (and particularly she) still are struggling to overcome the blow of defeat. For days after the election the Carters stayed close to the White House, trying to surmount a feeling of rejection. And friends say they still have a distance to go to regain their customary cheeriness and the spring in their steps.
Friends also think Mr. Carter needs to do more in the future than just go through his papers and write books about his presidency.
"He's too young and too active a man to confine himself to his memoirs," a long-time associate remarked recently. "What he needs to do is to play some important and active role in government. And what's more, it would be a terrible waste of our best and brightest if Carter isn't asked by this administration to play some useful role."
What could a Republican President ask his Democratic predecessor to do?
Already, the two men seem to have buried the hatchet after a campaign in which the charges and countercharges had to leave some bad feeling. Moreover, Mr. Reagan by nature is a "live-and let-live" person.
Therefore, as some of Mr. Carter's old associates suggest, President Reagan might well enlist Mr. Carter (along with Gerald Ford, perhaps) to head a Hoover-type commission to work on a blueprint for making government more efficient. Or, perhaps, a commission to address what the national goals should be fi ve, 10, 50 years from now.