WHATEVER can be done by the White House must be done quickly - in the fall political quarter. After the Christmas-New Year holidays President Reagan's lame-duck status will have really taken hold. By the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary next winter, public attention, and Washington's, will have shifted to the political future. The administration knows its time for action is short. It has adopted a fourth-quarter-'87 strategy. The time constraint pushes the White House toward pragmatism, compromise. The Iran-contra affair fallout also presses the White House toward conciliation. And the Republican loss of Senate control in last fall's election has wiped out its base of initiative against the Democrats on Capitol Hill.
What does the administration hope to achieve in this fourth-quarter push?
In Central America, it sees its combination of diplomacy and bipartisanship improving the chances of its contra aid policy.
In arms control, a midrange missile accord with the Soviet Union remains in prospect. This would imply a summit with Soviet leader Gorbachev - permitting Mr. Reagan to point to a specific arms reduction achievement out of his long policy of confrontation with the Soviets. Few in the administration still talk of success on long-range missile or space-and-technology negotiations.
It thinks it has the edge in the coming struggle to confirm the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
On the budget battle with Congress, it now looks as if the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction targets will be slipped into the future, enabling the President to avoid having to choose between deep defense cuts and raising taxes.
The trade bill has been put into the able custody of Treasury Secretary James Baker III, so it will likely be improved to the point it can prove acceptable to Mr. Reagan, averting a veto.
On the downside, the President will endure further Iran-contra buffeting. The hearings have ended, but Congress has not issued its report. The special prosecutor and a grand jury are still weighing criminal indictments.
The Persian Gulf poses hazards.
Trade deficit gains might be only in the $10 billion-to-$15 billion range.
The White House will be on the defensive on spending bills, from catastrophic health care to farm supports.
In case anyone hadn't noticed, the White House has not been setting the political agenda this year, for the first time since the President's election. This flows directly from its loss of the Senate majority, plus the impending lame-duck status. The Iran-contra affair has reinforced and hastened this otherwise normal weakened position; it has made it difficult for the President to claim that things are better than they are.
However come by, the strategy for fourth-quarter '87 shows a better sense of proportion. Procedures have been adopted to keep the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council in line. Nicaragua policy offers more hope for bipartisanship and continuity.
In all, this more modest program shows greater realism. It should make it easier for Republicans, who feel burdened by the administration's excesses, to run for office next year. And it should help move the political debate toward the center, where the majority of voters reside.
We would like the administration to move further in the direction of moderation and consensus-building. But it is worth noting what good can come from an administration's getting cut down to size.