Is the political rhetoric in Washington hampering President Reagan's arms negotiations? Republican congressman Richard Cheney, who served as President Ford's chief of staff and was involved in shaping foreign policy at that time, is one partisan voice on Capitol Hill strongly saying ''yes.''
At breakfast the other morning, Mr. Cheney, now a US representative from Wyoming, indicated that he thought the ''electoral process'' was running against the prospect of the President being able to put together an arms agreement with the Soviets.
''I think it conceivable,'' he said, ''that the arms issue could become so partisan that you will get a deadlock (on these negotiations with the Soviets) until after the election in 1984.
''I think that from Reagan's standpoint, he is not going to be able to outbid liberal Democrats in terms of their commitments to end the arms race,'' he continued. ''And from the Soviets' standpoint, as you get closer and closer to the election and it looks like a horse race, they will say to themselves:
'' 'Why should we enter into an agreement with a man who has adopted a fairly tough, hard-nosed position with us when, if we wait, we might get lucky and Walter Mondale or Alan Cranston might be the next President of the United States and he'll come out to Geneva with a new offer.' ''
Cheney has no patience with those who criticize the President's hard line with the Soviets: ''The Soviets are, in fact, the 'black hats' and it's not realistic to treat them - as some people would want us to treat them - as though we're management and they're labor, we're Republicans and they're Democrats.
''Associating with the Russians is not like associating with the Democrats,'' Cheney added. ''(The Soviets are) tough, mean, nasty. Their record proves it. And the head of the Soviet government today is a former head of the KGB. . . .
''Their record in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, and (on) human-rights violations all around the world, is pretty clear. And we make a mistake if we try to create a climate here at home that misrepresents the fundamental nature of Soviet society - which, it strikes me, is what you have to do in order to appease the critics of the way the President has talked about the Soviets.''
In summary the congressman stressed two points: (1) that the liberal challenge encourages the Soviets to wait until 1984 to come to an arms agreement; and (2) that there will be some trimming of the President's defense budget - ''but it won't be as much as a lot of people would lead you to believe.''