Our wonderous political machine

So much that is unfavorable has been said down through the years about the American political machine that it seems to me timely to try to adjust the perspective.

True, the system does not always push up to the top the person I personally consider to be best qualified. We need only mention Warren Harding as an example of the mistakes it can make. But the system in that case provided Calvin Coolidge to take over when the brief Harding presidency collapsed in human disaster.

I am not enthusiastic about the choice we Americans will have to make in November. Among Republicans I have become impressed by Sens. Howard Baker, Robert Dole, and Nancy Kassebaum. I regard all three as being more knowledgeable about the problems facing government today than is President Reagan.

Among Democrats, I was attracted by South Carolina's Sen. Ernest Hollings, perhaps for the wrong reason that he had a pleasant, pixieish sense of humor. I could have felt comfortable with John Glenn in the White House. Gary Hart has a warmer public personality than does the winner.

But I am going to have to make my choice between Mr. Reagan and Mr. Mondale, and I will be able to do so with a conviction that whichever man wins, the Great American Republic will survive. There will be a difference in the style of government in Washington. But the difference in substantive action will be marginal, because the system sees to it that change, when it comes, is marginal, not radical.

The American political system is geared to doing just that - to prevent radical change. It permits change, but only gradual or limited change. Usually it excludes the real radicals during the nominating process. Sometimes a radical wins a nomination, but seldom the election. Barry Goldwater campaigned as a radical of the right. George McGovern campaigned as a radical of the left. Each captured his respective party when the party was in a radically inclined mood. Each was defeated decisively on election day.

Ronald Reagan is an example of the unusual in American politics. He ran in 1980 as a radical of the right. His party was ready for it, and wanted it. The country, too, was ready for some change.

But the first three years of the Reagan presidency showed how the system puts limits around radicalism. The country was ready for a curb on income taxes and welfarism. It was not ready for the abandonment of the welfare state, or of environmentalism. Mr. Reagan once sounded like a man who would like to cut back on social security. One whiff of that and the system put an ''untouchable'' sign on social security.

The country got a reform of the social security system, but not an undoing. It got a marginal pullback on environmentalism. But James Watt had to go - for wanting to go back too far.

We see the system working its wondrous ways during the pre-convention process. The Democrats are rallying behind Walter Mondale because he is essentially a man of the center.

He is now looking around for a running mate. You and I know perfectly well that after talking to many, and making friends as much as possible in the process, he will select someone who will be able to salvage something of the old Southern, white Democratic Party. He doesn't need a feminist or a black to get the advantage over Mr. Reagan in the women's or black communities. He needs someone who can keep Southern whites in the party. The system nails him to the center.

The system has already pulled Mr. Reagan back toward center, both in domestic and in foreign policy. The welfare-bashing and gun-slinging days are over. The costumes of the 1980 campaign are stowed in the attic. Only unfriendly Democrats try to remind us of those days, with surprisingly little success. Our television screens present us with the very image of the modern statesman moving in impeccable tailoring among the great men and women of the world.

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