THE 1980s began with the political assertion that American leadership had failed. Not only had Jimmy Carter run out of gas, but American military strength had ebbed. The economy was bogged down by regulation and unions; it needed a cold dose of Thatcherism. The Reagan White House waited out the air controllers' strike. Defense spending was raised, taxes were cut. No revenue bonanza followed - just a staggering deficit that the White House budget officers lambasted Congress for not facing.
Private initiative, the game of the quick, ascended; a water table of homeless, jobless, hopeless began to spread beneath the visible economy, surfacing in the coldest weather only to sink again beneath the public's consciousness.
The decade began with a call for rebuilding the family, resurrecting ``traditional'' values; it ended with a drug scourge worse than that of the 1960s. Before, drugs seemed an expression of hedonism; now they are a purposeless fact, an existential nil, a zero - an evil economy that is displacing ideology as a cause for tension among nations.
Where have we come in the decade?
The balance that should exist in American political culture, between liberalism and conservatism, between the thrust of individual freedom and the embrace of equality, has swung past center.
Whereas Mr. Carter had been too cautious, too immersed in detail, Mr. Reagan showed himself vulnerable to the opposite tendency in the Iran-Contra dispute. If history could be revisited, Mr. Reagan might wish to have taken Mrs. Reagan's advice in 1984 and not run again. His achievements were intact. Presumably Mr. Bush would have been elected four years earlier.
The democratization that has occurred this decade in South America, and this past year in East Europe, did not occur because of the American arms buildup. The dictatorial systems were overthrown not because they were weak but because they were unjust.
Equity and freedom, not might, are the basis of a just society. The intellectually cowardly seek control because they cannot prevail in open democratic contest.
The trade figures miss America's chief export: its cultural capital. The United States is still a net exporter of social influence around the world. Its music, its way of organizing, its energy, continue to expand. America's universities and foundations have built networks around the globe that its government agencies cannot equal.
The East bloc countries seeking economic freedom and individual liberties should look to America less for a system to copy than for an ideal. Americans began their government with war more than two centuries ago, and tested it with war in the 1860s. They mistreated the native Indians shamefully, mistimed their entry into foreign wars. The system has had to regularly renew itself under the discipline of circumstances and its ideal. In this it has succeeded.
Thomas Jefferson refused to take a lead role in the Revolutionary War. He busied himself in the Virginia legislature writing statutes as models that the fledgling nation would need. He figured he could best serve by establishing in law such principles as separation of church and state - he drafted some 150 in all - so they would be ready for the constitutional procedure when needed.
Similarly, Americans today can best help a world struggling toward a new democratic footing by getting their own system in balance.
Instead of a vanquished, puny liberalism, Americans need a healthy movement to avoid the buildup of injustice that broke in a flood of legislation and court decisions in the 1960s. To allow a new underclass to grow - black, Hispanic, Catholic, undereducated, elderly - will lead to a distortion requiring drastic reaction.
This is but the reverse of the failure to acknowledge the warnings of conservatives in the 1970s that government policies and values had gotten out of whack.
The American system is not an economic handbook. It must be responsive to renewal in the areas of cultural, health, educational, religious, and community welfare.