The mechanism of a special presidential commission worked wonders for the social security problem. A bipartisan group of experts and politicians put together a compromise plan that saved the system.
A second special commission, on strategic weapons, worked almost as well. It put together a bipartisan compromise that turned US nuclear weapons planning toward less destabilizing weapons.
President Reagan then applied the special commission idea to Central America, with the redoubtable Henry Kissinger in charge. That experiment has not gone as well as the other two.
This is because 1984 is a presidential election year and Central American policy is politically important.
Recent polls seem to indicate that the 1984 election is likely to be a close one. Until recently most polls indicated that either Walter Mondale or John Glenn would win over Ronald Reagan, but by a narrow margin. The margin in recent polls has narrowed. In the latest Gallup poll, Mr. Reagan was ahead, but narrowly.
The recent improvement in Reagan's chances is presumably due to the continued improvement in the health of the American economy. But if that is so, then the present slight Reagan advantage could easily be washed out. A downturn in the economy before election day would not be helpful to Mr. Reagan.
With the prospects so uncertain, any special bloc of votes that might be moved from one side to the other could make an important and perhaps even critical difference. This is where the Hispanic vote comes into the picture.
President Reagan has been cultivating the Hispanic vote. He has worked harder at it than have his Democratic rivals. Most Hispanics in the United States come from Central America. Those from Puerto Rico and Mexico have tended to vote Democratic, but refugees from Cuba or Nicaragua like Mr. Reagan's anti-Castro posture and his support for the right-wing rebels trying to bring down the leftist regime in Nicaragua.
The Republicans are not likely to win many black votes on next election day. The overwhelming majority are more pro-Democratic and anti-Republican now than when Mr. Reagan came to Washington. Republican politicians concede most of the black vote to the Democrats, on the ground that there is nothing they can do about it in the short time left before election day. Besides, Mr. Reagan's antiblack tilt is one reason for his popularity with blue-collar whites known as ''the Archie Bunker vote.''
But the Hispanics are another matter. Many are ''upwardly mobile.'' These approve of Reagan economic policy. Many favor the old rightist regimes in Central America. It matters to them that the US government sustains the rightist regime in El Salvador and backs the rebels in Nicaragua.
But on the other side of the coin are refugees from rightist regimes in general, and in particular the friends of the victims of the infamous ''death squads'' in El Salvador. It is not forgotten that those ''death squads'' gunned down the Roman Catholic archbishop of El Salvador while he was officiating in a funeral mass in his own cathedral. They also killed three Catholic nuns, one Catholic lay worker, and representatives of American labor unions.
The above explains why Democrats are particularly interested in making aid to the El Salvador regime contingent on elimination of the ''death squads,'' and why they are less eager than are conservative Republicans to aid the rightist rebels from Nicaragua.
Henry Kissinger is famous for his ability to find a middle ground between presumably irreconcilable positions. But when the Hispanic vote in the US just might determine the outcome of the '84 elections, the problem of finding that middle way for Central America has strained even Dr. Kissinger's talents as the great mediator.