Primaries vs. issues

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IF you are getting bored with what Walter Mondale and Gary Hart are saying about each other in the Democratic primaries, you have reason to be. The arguments between them are of first importance to those two men but have almost nothing to do with the real issue in this presidential election year.

The Hart-Mondale duel has proved that Walter Mondale is no quitter. When his cause seemed almost lost after disaster in New England, he set to work to rattle his opponent. Gary Hart has been losing ground ever since Mr. Mondale succeeded in putting his opponent on the defensive.

But what is the real issue for the average American citizen this year?

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The real issue is over how much of the Reagan counterrevolution is good for the country and needs to be kept in an appropriate mix with what is still valid in the old Roosevelt-through-Lyndon Johnson revolution.

Gary Hart had a glimpse of this when he launched his campaign. His opening line was ''new ideas'' for a new age. Implicit in it was the theory that not everything Ronald Reagan has done since becoming president was necessarily bad. It was the right strategy for the election in November but the wrong strategy for the primaries. He lost to Mr. Mondale the constituencies of the New Deal-to-Great Society programs.

A Gallup poll released April 29 showed just how sound the original Hart strategy was - from the point of view of the November election. When asked which party would do better at ''keeping the country prosperous,'' the result was 44 percent for the Republicans, against 36 percent for Democrats. This is the first time in three years that the Republicans have led Democrats in a Gallup poll as ''the party of prosperity,'' and one of the few times since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President when more voters trusted Republicans than Democrats to improve their economic well-being.

The main elements of the Roosevelt-through-Johnson revolution are now so deeply embedded in the American economic and political system that few realize today just how revolutionary it all was. When I started writing for this newspaper in the last years of Herbert Hoover's administration, the federal government did not accept or exercise responsibility for the welfare of individuals. Private charity and sometimes town and state authorities stood between an individual and starvation. The federal government did nothing to relieve starvation or physical disaster or economic need. That was for private or local agencies.

The Roosevelt-Johnson revolution consisted of using the proceeds of the graduated income tax to guarantee that no American would starve from lack of food, die from lack of health care, or be deprived of all means of livelihood by unemployment.

It hardly sounds revolutionary today. In 1929 it was politically inconceivable. Roosevelt conceived of it only after reaching the White House. It was absent from his campaign promises or expectations.

That revolution reached its zenith under Johnson. The turn from it began under Carter. He initiated deregulation of trucking and airlines. In concept he started the counterrevolution, but did not have the political power to do more than take the first steps. It remained for Ronald Reagan to put into practice the ideas of those who believed that welfare and taxes had gone so high that they were smothering the regenerative capability of the American economy.

But in some areas the counterrevolution went too far for public acceptance. James Watt had to be sent home for insufficient concern for the environment. Edwin Meese is in the political shadows for having exhibited too little concern for those who are hungry. The White House has ended the purging of the welfare rolls.

What is the right mix of the Roosevelt-Johnson revolution and the Reagan conterrevolution, and who is the best man to appraise the task and carry it out? Whether we the voters realize it those are the real questions we will be asking ourselves between now and election day and the basis upon which we will be deciding for whom to vote.

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