THE big operative issue in Washington today is the deficit; on the Democratic presidential campaign trail, it's everything but the deficit. The hustings debate touches on the last recession and the nation's economic future, skipping today. It's almost as if the Democrats were running for the presidency of a country different from the one Washington is trying to lead.
This anomaly of a campaign's irrelevance from governing, or vice versa, is partly explained by the tendency of races to gather their own momentum, create their own context, their own media climate, their own ''reality.'' It sometimes happens too that candidates spend their energy running against Washington, not trying to join in with its struggles (Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Gary Hart 1984); they want to distance themselves from the ''mess'' the country is in and offer a new slate to write on.
The Democrats on the road have some political reason to let their Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill try to work things out with the Republicans and the White House. The deficit isn't a winning issue for them, by some counts. They could hurt themselves by attacking Reagan on the deficits. Only 12 percent of the public blames President Reagan for the deficits, according to the latest Penn and Schoen survey. Twenty-one percent blamed previous presidents, 19 percent blamed Congress, and 23 percent blamed general economic conditions. Republicans (44 percent) are thought better able to handle deficit problems than Democrats (30 percent).
The economic recovery also is tootling along robustly - at a 7.2 percent rate of growth in gross national product during this current first quarter, up from 5 percent at the end of last year. The Democrats can warn that the economy is in danger of overheating, that the strong dollar hurts exports, and that interest rates have begun to edge up again after holding flat since last fall. But when even the auto and steel industries, which took the full force of the last recession and suffer from structural problems, are in the black, the economy tends to fade into a non-issue for the Democrats.
To be fair about it, the Democratic contenders have offered their views about cutting defense, about taxes, federal spending priorities, all aspects of the deficit equation that Congress and the White House are trying to solve. And the Democrats have had their say about Central America policy, nuclear arms control, and other responsible issues.
Still, unlike other political systems where the government is likely to be brought down on a vote of confidence on a current issue, or where the opposition in parliament would head the next government, Americans have adjusted to their two-track system of electioneering and governing. One drawback of the US system is that it tends to encourage a permanent campaign. Indeed, to run for president some feel compelled to drop out of Washington office to gain enough lead time, as Senate majority leader Howard Baker is doing at the end of this term, with 1988 in mind. Another is that it tends to block out some of the most crucial issues from responsible election-year action.
Still, we argued earlier this year that the conventional wisdom on the deficit - that Congress and the White House wouldn't have the courage to tackle it with an election coming - could prove wrong. The public wants issues dealt with, and like it or not the Washington incumbents could hear the cold logic that action was better than inaction.
This is happening on the governance side. The President and Senate Republicans have offered a three-year $150 billion package; Democrats and House Republicans want to raise the ante to $200 billion. The Congressional Budget Office finds that the the President's plan might actually cut the deficit by some $100 billion, leaving a $200 billion shortfall in fiscal 1987. But this is progress.
So on to the campaign side. The deficit should be at the very nub of the Democratic debate. After all, interest payments on the debt have risen 57 percent to $108 billion since Mr. Reagan took office, faster than the growth in defense outlays. More government spending for interest on debt means less government spending for services, highways, research, the environment.
And what could look more responsible - and presidential - than to keep the voting public's attention on the major domestic issue the next officeholder will face in January 1985?