After a brief slowdown on the Pennsylvania turnpike, candidates Carter and Reagan appear to be back in the fast lane on the way to nomination. Yet they still have to look over their shoulders, where candidates Kennedy and Bush have been picking up hitchhikers. Somebody may be telling somebody something when the President of the United States one more (remember New York) fails to obtain a majority of his own party faithful in the kind of big, populous state traditionally needed to win in November. and when the smaller opposition party's front-runner loses decisively in the first one-on-one popularity contest with the man who always said he would win such a bout.
Pennsylvania says at least one thing to all the candidates, as if they didn't know it. They are campaigning in a season of discontent. Voters are not really happy with the current leadership or the given alternatives.
Pennsylvania also says separate things to the two front-runners.
To Carter the message is that the people's economic plight -- inflation plus the recession he acknowledged the other day -- has begun to speak loud enough to require more than stay-at-home politicking.
To Reagan the message is that there are still some Republicans out there who want someone nearer to the political center than he, and he can be defeated when their vote is not split among various candidates.
Perhaps such messages can be ignored for purposes of party nomination that seems all but sewed up. After all, while Kennedy was winning in Pennsylania and in Vermont caucuse, Carter was winning in Missouri caucuse and ending the day with a net gain in delegate mathematics. And, while Bush was winning the so-called beauty contest, Reagan was racking up delegates and, for the first time, predicting convention victory.
Yet the points raised by Pennsylvania cannot be ignored in relation to the voting in November and, indeed, in relation to the good of the country. Carter needs to be perceived as caring more and doing more about the economy. Reagan needs to be perceived as broadening his political appeal, as he already is doing. to judge by the politicians jumping on his bandwagon and the voters, even Democratic ones, who say they are switching to him.
A televisioin satire the other night made a telling point when a Kennedy figure was challenged for advocating something nonsensical with the kind of William Jennings Bryan orotundity Kennedy is displaying on the stump these days. The character defiantly replied, "But at least I have a plan!"
Most business leaders and economists are opposed to price-and-income controls as advocated by Kennedy. A few economists, some labor leaders, and a majority of the polled public favor them. Good or bad, they permit Kennedy to say that at least he has a plan.
Carter has pursued the less simplistic route of wage-price guidelines, budget-balancing, credit controls, and monetary restraint. But he seems to get less recognitioin for "having a plan" than for high interest rates and massive layoffs in certainindustries. Some believe that, if Kennedy were to drop out of the race, Carter might be tempted to seek the political boost that mandatory controls gave President Nixon. It is thought he might try to lessen the problem of advance reaction to controls by finding a way to impose them quickly under the broad umbrealla of the same credit legislation under which he recently acted - or by getting congressional authority with a retroactive provision.
This, of course, would be contrary to previous administration assurances against imposing controls. What candidates Carter needs is a way to stick to such pledges wile resonding to the concerns of those now distressed enough to override the Chappaquiddick factor and vote for Kennedy. One approach would be to strengthen federal persuassion on the existing guidelines, letting the public know that they are being fully and fairly applied rather than giving the impression they are being loosened to the point of meaninglessness.
Another approach would recognize that the President would show no less regard for the 50 hostages in Iran by going out among the thousands of economic hostages among his own people, demonstrating that he cares just as much for them.