Sifting the meaning of election '80

Portrait of an Election: The 1980 Presidential Campaign, by Elizabeth Drew. New York: Simon & Schuster. 459 pp. $14.95. The Hidden Election: Politics and Economics in the 1980 Presidential Campaign , edited by Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers. New York: Pantheon Books. 320 pp. $ 16.50.

Americans are forever political optimists. Although they say they don't have much faith in their elected leaders, they do feel down deep that things will get better. The domestic economic crisis will abate; international frictions will lessen; their personal lot will improve.

And it's almost as if journalists and academic commentators on current events feel it is their duty to jolt the public from its euphoria and naivete and remind them that all is not well in Camelot - and furthermore it never was and never will be.

Elizabeth Drew's recounting of the 1980 presidential campaign, although precise and painstakingly researched, would appear to come almost too late. With the Reagan administration heading for the homestretch of its first year, a spate of books by newsmen and others have already chronicled how Jimmy Carter lost and Ronald Reagan won.

Miss Drew - whose piercing essays in The New Yorker are well known - does add some new on-the-scene anecdotes. And she portrays the Republican standard-bearer and now White House occupant as a ''candidate of imagination who appeals to people's resentments''; analyzes the former president as one who ''lifts no spirits, kindles no imagination, does not get people thinking in new ways''; and reminds readers that they really didn't want - or trust - either candidate.

Even with all of the above, the Drew book just adds to already existing election analyses. Adding a bit of fresh frosting to what is pretty much stale cake is a series of heretofore unpublished strategy memorandums prepared for Reagan and Carter by their pollsters, Richard Wirthlin and Patrick Caddell. These confidential and brutally frank evaluations and position papers told the candidates just what their personal and political weaknesses were during the course of the campaign.

Caddell flatly imformed President Carter that the public, by and large, didn't like him - and had little faith in his vision or leadership. And Wirthlin warned Reagan that, although voters held Carter in low esteem, they are ''not quite sure of us.''

Whether the Reagan strategists were successful in projecting an image of the former California governor which exuded the compassion, moderation, and intellect Wirthlin felt were needed is the subject of continuing analyses. The controversy over whether Reagan won more than Carter lost is certain to continue for at least three more years.

If Miss Drew's account does little to reinforce public trust in politicians, ''The Hidden Election'' - a series of essays by academic theorists - raises even graver doubts, not only about America's leaders, but the future of the system itself.

Ferguson and Rogers, professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rutgers, respectively, paint a bleak political landscape, with Reagan programs teetering, conservative coalitions eventually unravelling, and a foundering Democratic Party looking in desperation to ''some sort of social democracy'' to help remold itself.

''By 1984,'' these scholars gloomily predict, ''it is a fair guess that many Northeastern cities will resemble scenes from 'The Clockwork Orange' - barren stretches of decaying buildings broken by oases of fortified high-rises (or well-policed 'gentrified' brownstone villages) from which the dwindling middle and upper classes peer anxiously at the chaos outside. The regional wars between the Northeast and the booming Sunbelt are sure to worsen. Capital flight will increase. Tensions between business and labor and the poor will surely rise.''

And you thought all we had to worry about was whether Kemp-Roth supply-side economics would work and Reggie Jackson would sign another multimillion-dollar baseball contract. Oh you optimist, you.

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