Americans will wake up next Wednesday morning to learn whether they, in their collective wisdom (?), have:
(1) Given Ronald Reagan a resounding vote of confidence, or
(2) Given Ronald Reagan a resounding reprimand, or
(3) Continued the existing situation in Washington.
My guess is that they will have done the third of these three things. And if this proves to be the case, I for one will weep no tears because this is one case where a house divided is probably the safer outcome for the midterm US elections of 1982.
The existing situation in Washington is one in which a conservative Republican President is able to check the pace of social welfare (which almost everyone agrees had to be done) but is unable to put into effect the full program of his own more radical constituents.
By controlling the White House and the Senate Mr. Reagan can initiate economic and social changes which would, if carried out in full, produce a counterrevolution at the expense of large segments of the American population.
But because the Democrats still control the House of Representatives they are able to restrain and contain the Reagan adjustment in national directions. The result is just that - a readjustment of direction and priorities. It is not the true counterrevolution for which the radical right wing of the Reagan constituency yearns but which, if implemented, could tear the country apart.
This division of power was mandated by the voters of two years ago. It reflected frustration then over the policies of the Democrats. It showed a willingness to try a new direction but also a hesitation to turn the country completely over to the Reagan Republicans. The mandate of 1980 was in effect a permission to try something new but to go about it gently and gingerly.
Is the US ready for a more decisive mandate?
The Reagan idea of letting prosperity trickle down from the top has restrained inflation and begun to bring interest rates down, both of which are desirable achievements. But it has done so at the cost of high unemployment which is already at what is probably the highest politically tolerable level. Let it go much higher and there would almost certainly be a sharp turn in public opinion back toward the old and largely discredited Democratic remedies.
In other words, the last two years have given the Reagan political formula a chance to prove itself. The result has been mixed - good in checking inflation and interest rates but flawed as a means for reviving a lagging, now stagnant economy.
But the same two years have failed to produce any new and promising alternative. The Democrats are fumbling for new ideas and for new leaders. The voters at Tuesday's polls do not see before them a clear new choice in national directions. They only have a choice between local candidates. In many cases, probably most, the real choice is between one man who says President Reagan is responsible for checking inflation and the other who says President Reagan is responsible for increasing unemployment.
There is no real choice here between respectable and promising but different directions. The Reagan formula is tarnished after two years but not decisively discredited. The Democrats have yet to come up with anything more interesting than criticism of Mr. Reagan. They dare not try to revive the old ''New Deal.'' In fact there is nothing really new that they are ready to bring forward, partly because the country will not be ready for something new and different unless or until the Reagan formula is decisively discredited.
As for attractive leaders with stimulating new ideas, who and where are they?
Mr. Reagan is still, after nearly two years in office, the newest thing in American politics. He represented a decisive change. He preached a different doctrine. He still preaches it. It has lost some of its persuasiveness, but it remains the only real novelty on the American scene.
The failure of the Democrats to come up with anyone preaching a new doctrine in a persuasive way is remarkable. I would have thought that there might by this time have been someone as interesting as an Adlai Stevenson coming along. But all the Democrats offer so far is an unexciting choice between a shopworn Edward Kennedy, an earnest John Glenn, and a routine Walter Mondale.
Mr. Reagan has his flaws as a President. He remains the most visible figure on the American political scene. Perhaps this tells us more about the smallness of the others than about the bigness of Mr. Reagan.
All of which is why next Wednesday morning is likely to bring us more of the same thing we have.