What's going on in Washington this week is really much simpler than it appears. What looks like a complex of discrete news events - huddles in Congress, White House letters to Democratic congressmen, Senate GOP leader Howard Baker stopping outside the White House to chat with newsmen, House Democratic Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. doing the same on Capitol Hill - is all part of the revolving Washington news-management carrousel.
Basically, the Republicans want to talk about the improving economy. The Democrats want to talk about the Marines in Lebanon.
The President's State of the Union message tonight, anyone could guess, will billboard gains on employment, inflation, a stronger America economically as well as militarily. The Democrats want to draw attention to the Republican incumbent's weak suit, foreign policy. The Marines in Lebanon are Democratic shorthand for their election-year charge that the world is a less safe place under Ronald Reagan than it was three years ago.
In the one-upmanship for center stage, called ''framing the debate,'' Tip O'Neill reports that all he heard at the Super Bowl in Tampa was, ''When will we get the Marines home? - nothing about the deficit. A House ad hoc committee on Lebanon yesterday called Donald Rumsfeld, special envoy to the Middle East, to testify.
In counteraction, the White House has President Reagan send a letter to two Democratic congressmen who had earlier questioned his Middle East decisions - sure Page 1 stuff. The President reaffirmed his intention to keep the Marines in Beirut and help Lebanon's President Amin Gemayel reconcile his country's factions ''on a basis that is more Lebanese than Syrian.''
At the same time the White House fed its basic new budget numbers to select media to emphasize a somewhat smaller deficit number - $180 billion - for next year than was earlier forecast, and a projected fiscal 1985 spending total of $ 925.5 billion. It also reported the current year's deficit might be about $11 billion less than predicted. This story helped bring the focus back on the economy. The White House could underscore its economic game plan: the President firm against tax hikes this year, firm for a 14 percent military spending buildup.
In a town where putting your ''spin'' on the news is regarded as an essential political art, even the timing of the Meese-Smith guard change at the Justice Department, Monday's big story, can help dominate attention during the week leading to the incumbent President's reelection announcement Sunday night, Jan. 29.
Despite the Washington carrousel of power and appearances, it is possible to draw a few clear-enough conclusions. On Lebanon, Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin , one of the recipients of the presidential letter, was right when he outlined the two Washington extremes on the Marines. One side stresses the bad consequences of withdrawal, the other side questions why the Marines should be there at all. In between, Aspin says, is the question: How do we withdraw while minimizing the consequences? The Democrats may be right that the chamber they control, the House, will try to pull the rug out from under Reagan's authority to keep the Marines there. Senator Baker likewise correctly says the GOP-controlled Senate will thwart the House attempt. It's a congressional draw, giving Reagan more time unless events in Lebanon take another dramatically violent turn.
And on the budget the truth will eventually differ from the numbers to appear when the White House sends the full published document to Capitol Hill next Wednesday, Feb. 1. Thus even military officials privately say the best the President might get on defense spending, ultimately, will be nearer the 4 percent or 5 percent range several Democratic presidential contenders call for. Sometimes it's helpful to silence the calliope and freeze the carrousel a moment and note the difference between political appearance and reality.