WASHINGTON for some time has been in a mood to disagree. This can be one way to lead, when things are going well. But eventually such a disposition breeds trouble, or makes bad situations worse. At the moment, the White House is having a hard time governing itself. It has twice stumbled over its own Supreme Court nominations. The new aspirants for the Oval Office - the latest being Republican Sen. Robert Dole - are laboring to define a leadership niche for themselves at a time of uncertain national transition.
For its part, the White House is trying to address a global financial crisis that derives as much from President Reagan's intransigence on fiscal matters as from anything else.
It is making a constructive turn in its Central American policy by agreeing to direct talks with Nicaragua's Sandinistas - under certain conditions.
And it is on the threshold of its first major foreign policy success, the long-delayed Gorbachev visit in early December to sign a midrange nuclear missile treaty. Taken together, all this is a mixture of good and not-so-good, reflecting much internal dissent and dispute with both allies and foes on Capitol Hill.
What is emerging is a need for steadiness, consistency, and focus at the helm - and a better humor.
Maybe Bob Dole is right, that the next president should be one who can mediate disputes between the executive and legislative branches, rather than one that attempts to align the Supreme Court on its side to wage war on the Congress.
It was a mistake to draw first the Robert Bork nomination for the Supreme Court, and then the Douglas Ginsburg nomination, into this leadership morass. They were provocative nominations, intended to secure the narrow ideological goals of the White House. The Bork nomination was by far the stronger of the two, but it foundered on the public's doubt that Mr. Bork would protect basic individual freedoms. Mr. Ginsburg's nomination was so weak on every side - experience, professional standing, personal record - that a few puffs of marijuana could take it down.
The nomination of California appeals court judge Anthony Kennedy - a mainstream conservative - offers a better opportunity for the White House and Congress to seek accord.
This more constructive approach, brought to economic and foreign policy matters, could do wonders for Washington's flagging record and morale.