It's in the nature of politics to take advantage of the energy of events. So it's not surprising to see the Reagan administration running hard with the outrage against the Soviets for downing the Korean jetliner to resume its press on Congress for the White House's agenda.
The White House wants the MX approved. It wants to get its Central American initiatives fully funded - not half funded the way things had been shaping up in Congress before the August recess. It wants its defense spending goals met. It thinks action on the budget can wait until Congress is willing to take the lead, and the responsibility, for deficit-cutting measures that may be politically unpopular - or at least inconsistent for a President who doesn't like tax increases period.
Thus Congress returned this week to find an energized President in the White House, a more confrontational Reagan. Since the jetliner incident, Reagan's public approval score surged nine points over his August rating, in Newsweek's survey. Congress should and will formally condemn the Soviets for the jetliner downing, further adding to the climate of opprobrium for the deed and strengthening Reagan's hand in Washington.
But there are some risks for the President in seeking to take maximum domestic advantage of the jetliner fallout.
With this incident, his administration has entered a new and volatile period with the American public. Before this, Reagan's standing was remarkably stable, keyed as it was to the overall tone of his performance in office and to the relatively slow pace of change in the economy. Foreign affairs incidents are volatile stuff to build a presidency on. President Carter's public standing soared more than 30 points after the Iranians seized American hostages in late ' 79, but soon began a 40-point plunge after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the US hostage rescue mission failed.
The rally-round-the-flag impulse can be useful to a White House, and Reagan's aides can only be expected to take full advantage of it.
But some in the White House, and Republicans on Capitol Hill, are already signaling for caution. The public wants tough words but temperate action toward the Soviets on the jetliner, it's gotten done so far. It's still only evenly divided on Reagan's overall dealings with Moscow. It wants diplomatic links and arms talks with Moscow to continue. It favors steps like curbing East-bloc loans and credits and tourist flow to show US disapproval.
And in Lebanon, there's a question too about how much use the jetliner aftermath will be to the administration. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) put in a bill yesterday that would authorize President Reagan to keep US marines in Lebanon through next spring. It would, however, place the peace-keeping force under the l973 War Powers Act. This would give Congress the say about keeping Marines in Lebanon longer, or about boosting their number. At the moment, US Marines are in Lebanon ostensibly as a ''show of force'' not a ''use of force.'' A dispute could quickly break out with Congress if Lebanese hostilities drag US Marines into more than crossfire.
In other words, there's serious doubt about how much is basically changed in the public's and in Congress's view of US responsibilities after the jetliner downing. Certainly the Soviets' Afghanistan invasion, their meddling with Poland to suppress the Solidarity movement, were vivid and recent enough events to have set the American view of the USSR as haunted and ruthless about the security of its borders. The jetliner incident reinforced this view.
The US peace movement, the nuclear freeze advocates, have to hold back for a while. It will be harder for those in Congress who prefer negotiation in Central America to press their case.
At least as important, it will take enormous effort to revive the economy and the budget as an issue in Washington. President Reagan has apparently succeeded , with the help of the jetliner tragedy, in making foreign policy dominant over domestic matters as his third year rounds out - the typical pattern for White House officeholders of both parties as elections near.
The longer view suggests the l984 election will turn largely on domestic issues, chiefly the economy. Mr. Reagan still harbors great optimism that the recovery now under way will hold the deficit next year within bounds. The conventional wisdom is that nothing will happen on the economy in Washington until l985.
Some in Congress want to start paring away at the string of $200 billion deficits by tying revenue hikes to spending cuts. Even with proposed deficit reductions the deficit would be growing faster than the gross national product. It looks as if it would take only a word from the White House to get this much going. Reagan could get a deficit-cutting package if he wants one.
Right now the White House should be looking at post-Korean jetliner policy as well as taking advantage of the Soviets' tragic mistake.