In this age of cardboard candidates, blow-dry hairdos, and television-spot campaigns, it has come as a shock to Capitol Hill Democrats to learn that a political party must be something more than a label. Ronald Reagan's remarkable achievement has been to make clear to the American people that the new Republican Party stands for something, and that he is dead set on attaining its goals. Even those who think his program of lower taxes, a big military buildup, and wholesale cuts in social and economic programs adds up to national disaster still respect the President for knowing what he wants and pushing his program with vigor and without vacillation.
The Democratic Party, in contrast, is now in what the pundits call ''disarray.'' The situation is so bad that they are having meetings to decide just what it is that they stand for these days. To assist them in these deliberations, a few suggestions on how the party can prepare itself for a return to power:
* First, the Democrats must have a unifying idea, a theme that will undergird their positions on a broad range of issues. The Democratic Party as reinvented by Franklin D. Roosevelt is simply the party of social and economic justice. The New Deal meant exactly what it said - the federal government would reshuffle the economic cards and deal them out in a new way to give everybody a fair share of America's political freedoms and material wealth.
* In the years since the New Deal, more and more Democratic leaders have been bamboozled by phony theories concocted by establishment economists. That's why the second imperative for the Democrats is to free themselves from the mental straitjackets imposed by the computer-derived precepts of the new economics.
Most politicians of both parties now believe that full employment is an impossible dream, that the decline of basic US industries is due to ''natural'' economic forces rather than poor management; that unemployment cannot be reduced without generating more inflation; that money available for investment is what triggers economic growth; that increased consumer spending aggravates inflation without generating growth; that only higher productivity can raise real wages; that federal deficits are not necessarily inflationary; that only a bigger economic pie can improve the lot of the majority; that military spending strengthens the economy; that government operations are inherently less efficient than private; and - most ridiculous of all - that government and private industry are separate entities that can be understood independently of each other.
None of the above is true. Unemployment, inflation, economic growth, and income distribution are all controlled by government action. The federal government is the economic system.
All that is foreordained is that those who benefit most from the current distribution of wealth and power will raise a mighty ruckus if anyone tries to change it. But isn't that what politics in a democratic society is for? Isn't a free country one that provides for redress of economic and social grievances without street riots, coups, and revolutions?
So let's go, Tip, Teddy, Walter, and the rest. Tell the American people your party carries the same banner as it did in the '30s: social and economic justice. And offer some fresh ideas about how to get it.
Don't bore us with more Great Society schemes for ''helping the poor help themselves'' through programs that hand money out to politicians, bureaucrats, and hustling entrepreneurs. Show us a plan that will put everybody to work. Nobody wants a handout. Any man or woman who wants a job has a right to one, and it's up to industry and government to see that one is available. Full employment is the only lasting cure for poverty, inflation, crime, and a host of other national problems.
But jobs are not an end in themselves. We need production, and that means a program to restore basic manufacturing industries. With a change in national priorities, we could give overseas producers some real competition in the markets we used to dominate, and maybe see the return of Made-In-USA labels to our stores.
For specifics, I would suggest a simplified, no-shelter income tax, more employee control in industry, an end to immigration, government control of energy imports and marketing, a national health system without ripoffs for doctors and insurance companies, a government-owned armaments industry, and expanded social security system to replace piecemeal, unreliable private pensions, direct intervention to restore basic industries.
President Reagan is promising something that most Americans want: jobs and prosperity. What the Democrats must do is show why the Reagan plan for attaining these goals is not working - in fact, cannot work - and that they have some better ideas.