CONVENTIONAL wisdom has it that because children don't vote, it's hard for them to get a fair shake in the political system. But children's issues - family issues - may well turn out to be the sleeper issues on the American political scene over the next few years, if not the 1988 presidential race.
``Kids are becoming good politics,'' as Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund puts it.
She and other observers report a ``critical mass'' of support quietly developing in the United States Congress and elsewhere on behalf of improved day care, better health care, and education adequate to prepare young people for meaningful roles in society and the workplace.
Here is where self-interest coincides with decency. Even some of the most tightfisted fiscal conservatives can be persuaded into ``preventive investment.'' A dollar spent today on a school lunch program may save many, many dollars down the line in remedial education, unemployment benefits - or even incarceration. And so even staunch conservatives like Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois and Rep. Jamie Whitten (D) of Mississippi have been quietly getting onto the kids' lobby bandwagon.
Outside Washington, governors and mayors, on whom much of the burden of the federal social-spending cuts of the early Reagan years has fallen, have become sensitized to the need for preventive investment in the children and young people of their jurisdictions. Corporate leaders are realizing that their businesses will fail if they can't get workers educated to do the work that needs doing.
And as members of the baby-boom generation work their way up the corporate ladders, they are making a difference: Their whole working lives have been spent in an economic environment in which two paychecks, not just one, have been necessary to support a family. They are bringing to the question of balancing work life and home life a perspective their elders - including highly paid top management - often do not have.
On the presidential front, however, there has been more baby-kissing than actual support for children's and family issues. Might-have-been candidate Patricia Schroeder has been effective in articulating children's issues (and not just as women's issues but as family issues). When she decided not to run, we noted that without her presence in the race, the onus would be on those in the remaining all-male field to demonstrate that they, too, care as deeply about family security as military security.
For the moment, Sen. Paul Simon is alone among the announced presidential contenders in endorsing the new day-care bill pending in Congress.
Representative Schroeder is, however, slated to be the questioner in the Des Moines Register's Jan. 8 debate among Republican candidates. We trust she'll give them an opportunity to prove that they, too, know kids are good politics.