The breadth, the sweep, of Ronald Reagan's reelection victory leaves no doubt about the American public's decision for continuity in leadership. That vote for continuity extends to Capitol Hill. There the Republicans' Senate majority control was shaved by a couple of seats, making moderate compromise even more likely. In the House, the Republicans recovered half the 26 seats they lost in 1982 - a modest achievement alongside the President's, and not enough to reassemble the conservative coalition that gave Mr. Reagan his early first-term string of budget and tax victories.
The two Washington antagonists of the past four years - House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. and Mr. Reagan - will preside again. Actually, they are the leaders of longer-running competing movements in politics, the liberal Democratic establishment and the more populist conservatives, whose current generational clash emerged in the 1960s. Senate majority leader Howard Baker is retiring to run for the White House. Moderate Republicans have been squeezed the hardest of late - with Sen. Charles Percy the most recent victim - but they survive as Washington's pragmatic dealmakers.
With the field of governing in the hands of two senior American politicians, political speculation naturally turns to 1986 and 1988, when a new generation of leaders will succeed to the helm of both parties. For the Democrats, who have now averaged some 42 percent of the vote for five straight presidential elections, the inability to command a national majority surely lies deeper than the personal qualities and efforts of their candidates. This exemption from blame includes Walter Mondale, who waged an intelligent and persistent campaign but could not budge an electorate that had long ago decided to reelect the Republican President. Among the Democrats' achievements in 1984 was the selection of a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, as the vice-presidential nominee - a decision of broad social and political implications whatever its effect on votes. American blacks secured their first presidential nominee finalist in Jesse Jackson, encouraging black registration and enhancing minority clout. The Democrats' challenge lies deeper than their failure to meld their 1984 factions for the final run - the young enterpreneureal types who went for Gary Hart, women and blacks, labor and other mainstream Democrats who backed Mondale. They can rally the faithful, as the huge crowds that gathered in the final days attest; but they don't seem to know which way to go.
To the victor belong the opportunities.
President Reagan's commanding victory and his unquestionable conservatism give him a strong position for discussing peace. The election behind, he can now pursue a summit with President Chernenko. The GOP's failure to alter the ideological balance of Congress could make it easier to get an arms pact ratified.
We already know the basic cut of Mr. Reagan's views. His consistency is one reason voters reelected him. He has not laid out plans for a second term, beyond saying they would evolve out of what the public has already seen. This fits with his longtime practice of keeping his options until a final plan reaches his desk for a yea or nay. But it also undercuts future claims that the American public has endorsed any given plan of action.
Apart from the overriding factor of prosperity, Americans have rewarded Mr. Reagan for an approach to governing that they find reassuring and uncomplicated in its communication of certain values. They appreciate his sense of humor as well as his combativeness - his easy zest for combat up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.
At some point ahead Mr. Reagan will have to prove that his lame-duck status does not rob him of his ability to lead. He cannot dally. He must have his economic plan and tax-reform strategy ready to go on his inauguration in January. Surely, he must at last make some Cabinet and White House staff changes! He must decide on the things that are achievable abroad and get on with them.
Meantime, Mr. Reagan can savor the satisfaction of seeing the public end the recent string of truncated presidencies, by rewarding him with a second term. Americans and their friends abroad wish him success.