THINK about it: for the first time in over half a century, the American presidency is passing normally from one man to another of the same party. There have been same-party transitions before, but those were in special cases: the deaths in office of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, and the resignation of Richard Nixon. We have to go back to 1929, when Calvin Coolidge turned things over to Herbert Hoover, for the last example of such a peaceable same-party transition. Whatever presidential wisdom Coolidge may have imparted to his successor is not particularly vividly etched in public memory - although there was a wonderful New Yorker cartoon showing the ever-frugal Coolidge refusing to leave the White House until the errant half of a pair of galoshes was located.
Fortunately, during the current transition from the Reagan administration to that of George Bush, things are moving along at a brisker pace than prevailed in the 1920s.
Reporters in Washington are beginning to trail the President-elect as they once shadowed Ronald Reagan, who will be away for much of the next two months. The flow of ``power,'' in that almost mystical Washington sense, has already begun. Mr. Reagan's hands-off style, and the continuity resulting from the members of the Reagan cabinet that will be staying on, help accelerate this process. (These appointees are not so much ``holdovers'' as advanced placements, selected in close consultation with Mr. Bush and anticipation of his victory.)
Perhaps most heartening are the indications that President-elect Bush intends to be a more activist, hands-on president. There will indeed be plenty for him to put his hands on. Specifically, we welcome his promise to start negotiating a deficit-reduction package on Inauguration Day.
The General Accounting Office has issued a stern warning that the federal budget deficit cannot be cut without a tax hike; it was also negative on ``growing out of the deficit,'' on freezes, cuts-by-formula, or hopes of finding some vast pool of uncollected tax revenues. And the president-elect, as we all know, is opposed to a tax hike.
Fortunately he is calling on some able people to help him out of this particular box. Richard Darman, newly named as budget director, is known as a master consensus builder who, if anyone, will be able to work a deal out with Congress.
One face-saving technique under consideration is for the new administration simply not to send its own budget over the Congress. Although the outgoing president is required by law to leave a budget for the next fiscal year, the budget sent over by the incoming president is a matter of tradition rather than legal requirement.
To prevent his own document (which presumably would be full of unpopular program cuts if he is to avoid tax hikes) from being declared ``dead on arrival'' on Capitol Hill, Mr. Bush may opt out of tradition.
If so we wouldn't blame him. The challenges - including the coming thrifts bailout, and nuclear-weapons plant cleanups along with the same old deficit that's been a problem for years - are great enough that no one can waste time on pointless exercises.
``Hit the ground running'' is one of those energetic-sounding clich'es that can be annoying. But it's exactly what the new administration will have to do.