Washington — Back in the early 1960s, it was Barry Goldwater who was offering the voters ''a choice, not an echo.'' It didn't take him to the presidency. But he was telling the people the truth.
The Republican Party, indeed, was for the most part pretty much a ''me-too'' party since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Conservatism was voiced by some Republicans in state and local races. But by the time the GOP presidential candidate was chosen, both the GOP platform and its standard bearer had taken on a more moderate coloration.
It was Ronald Reagan who finally broke away from the ''me-tooism'' of the GOP past. That's what his victory was all about - and still is all about.
Now the Democrats are in the same fix that Republicans had been in for 50 years: They find a public that is for the most part attuned to less government spending and, for that matter, less government. And so they tend to end up talking about alternatives to the Reagan thrust, but actually endorsing much of that thrust.
Herbert Stein, economic adviser of GOP presidents over the last 15 years, is no stranger to the charge that the GOP for too long struggled for a separate identity.
As the principal economic adviser of President Nixon, Dr. Stein was working with a chief executive who could not be pulled too far away from the mainstream thinking at that time: the philosophy that was tied in with providing enormous sums of money for social programs.
Now, Stein emphasized to reporters over breakfast, ''the whole mainstream of economics has moved to the right - and the Democrats have moved with it.''
''Like the Republicans over the years,'' said Stein, ''they are kind of 'me-too, but we can do it better.'
''There is the Kennedy-Johnson-Humphrey residue of Democratic economists who really haven't changed their minds. . . . They think there's a great deal of room for pumping up the economy without inflation - that we need much more of an expansionist policy.
''The only way in which they have changed is that whereas they thought the Kennedy-Johnson deficits were good deficits, they think the Reagan deficits are bad deficits.''
But are some Democrats saying they have an economic alternative?
Yes, they are the liberals who call themselves the high-tech people. But I don't think they have much to offer. . . . Our problem is that we have spent too much on social programs. And so we have brought in big budget deficits. And we have regulated too much.
How are most Democrats expressing 'me-tooism,' this echo of the GOP approach to solving economic problems?
The Democrats now will pay more attention to budget deficits. They will pay more attention to monetary policy. They will give more weight to inflation. And they will talk more about long-term growth than they used to do.
Is no one saying we should spend government money to solve problems?
Well, there is the Democratic philosophy that we should spend it differently. We should spend it on jobs programs and not on defense. The defense program gives them an opportunity to be against spending in total, but for all the spending programs they were always for.