Washington — Protectionist Democrats, free-trade Republicans. This is a role reversal of 60 years ago. It's a clear break from a bipartisan policy of freer trade that began after World War II. And it's causing the Democratic presidential candidates who espouse protectionist measures growing frustration and irritation.
The protectionist position was embraced, particularly by Democratic front-runner Walter F. Mondale, as a necessary concession to the demands of the AFL-CIO, which is planning to endorse one of the presidential contenders just before the 1984 primaries begin.
The problem, according to staff members of the various candidates, is that none of the candidates is really committed to a policy of setting up trade barriers to protect American jobs and industry. In fact, they are outraged that labor has exacted this toll in exchange for possible endorsement, says a highly regarded Democrat who frequently communicates with all of the candidates' camps.
Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado and former Florida Gov. Reuben Askew have specifically distanced themselves from any policy of trade restrictions. The other Democratic candidates support some aspects of protectionism.
Former President Jimmy Carter has denounced this espousal of protectionism and said that it might well lead to a trade war.
President Rea-gan's position, as expressed by his special trade ambassador, William E. Brock III, is that ''we are free traders.'' In an exchange with reporters over breakfast, Mr. Brock added: ''None of us are pure. But the very clear goals of this administration must be to pursue the 'holy grail' of free trade. I believe in it. I know the President does.''
Democratic party leaders, for the most part, are at least giving lip service to the idea of doing something to protect the jobs of American workers from foreign competition.
Privately, however, some will say they don't see a lot of Democratic votes in this position - above what they're already likely to get because of the still-struggling economy. They will admit, too, that this shift away from their party's traditional free-trade policy isn't to their liking.
Brock says he doesn't see protectionism, as such, becoming a big issue in 1984. ''I think,'' he said, ''the issue will be focused on recovery and on jobs and inflation. In 1984 we are going to hear what Reagan asked Carter in 1980: Are we better off?
''If things are better, and the recovery continues, and people are going back to work, and the prospect is for continued improvement, I think we (the Republicans) will be very tough to beat.''
Bryce Harlow, a longtime adviser to US presidents, puts it this way: ''Protectionism won't be a big issue. It comes down to this: If confidence rises in the economy, then the President's prospects of winning again rise with it.''
Brock says Republicans have taken the right trade position away from Democrats - the one that, in the end, is the best for the United States and the world. ''We are trying,'' he said, ''to move both the country and the world trading system toward a more liberal trading system.''
And what about the Democrats' move toward protectionism?
''It's troubling,'' said Brock. ''Actually, trade policy, like foreign policy , has been bipartisan since World War II. . . . Protectionism was associated with the Republicans in the '20s - but I wouldn't have been a Republican in the 1920s.
''Both parties for the last 30 years have been pretty active in supporting this trading system. During that time there's really never been a debate on trade in this country that has been partisan in nature. It's becoming so - and that's dangerous.''
Brock concedes that ''the country is far more protectionist than it was a few years ago.'' But he attributes much of this shift to the recession and joblessness. He thinks that within a few years, the leading Democrats, and their party, will be panting to get back on the free-trade wagon once again. But it will be difficult for them to do so without a loss of credibility.