Day after day, Walter Mondale taunts Gary Hart with cries of ''Where's the beef? Where's the beef?'' With that gibe, Mr. Mondale implies that Senator Hart really doesn't have all those ''new ideas'' he talks about for America.
On Capitol Hill, however, those who have watched Senator Hart in action for the past nine years say the chants about ''beef'' miss the point. All through his Senate career, they note, Mr. Hart has searched for fresh ways to deal with old problems.
The senator has plumped for a number of new concepts - often controversial ones. He has pushed for small aircraft carriers for the Navy. He has favored a pollution tax to discourage the output of hazardous wastes. And he has looked for ways to halt the production of plutonium that can be used by terrorists to manufacture nuclear weapons.
The question about Senator Hart, say congressional colleagues, isn't ''Where's the beef?'' The real question should be: ''Is the beef prime, choice, or just commercial-grade hamburger?''
In other words, do all these ideas that Hart talks about really merit support from voters, and in the halls of Congress and the White House?
The senator has written a 180-page book, ''A New Democracy,'' about his favorite ideas. The book is the most comprehensive single source available to the public. At the Monitor's request, Hart's staff has also provided a summary of his principal ideas. The senator has also discussed his ideas in some detail with this reporter in recent months.
From all these sources, a picture of Hart's ''new ideas'' for America emerges. Much of it is couched in populist terms - the old ''rich vs. poor'' concept. He talks of President Reagan's ''dark agenda'' for America, a plan to shift resources from ''people to guns.'' He charges that ''our laws reward the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class.''
But beyond these rhetorical flourishes, Hart also suggests that the old Democratic Party policies won't work in the 1980s. He explains that America is going through ''revolutionary times,'' and these times require that Americans put aside old concepts and try new solutions.
If you step up to Hart's ''meat counter'' looking for some beef, here are some samples of what you would find. Military reform
Hart, a leading member of the Military Reform Caucus in Congress, is probably best known for his support of small aircraft carriers. The small carrier illustrates the senator's approach to defense policy. He wants cheaper weapons, more effective weapons, and more weapons.
Hart charges that the Pentagon is wrong to put so much faith in a few, huge nuclear aircraft carriers that are vulnerable to Soviet attack. Instead, he would take the same amount of money and build a fleet of 30 smaller (40,000-ton) carriers and spread them out over a wider area.
At the same time, Hart advocates more reliance on rapid-maneuver warfare, rather than trying to match the Soviets weapon for weapon. He says the Pentagon is too reliant on a strategy of attrition, which requires heavy investment in large, vulnerable equipment.
The senator says the Reagan defense budget (up 13 percent in 1985) is too large, but Hart does favor an increase, though smaller. He says more funds should be put into military pay, shipbuilding, and readiness. He would save by canceling a number of current Pentagon programs, including the MX missile, the B-1 bomber, the F-15 and F/A-18 aircraft, two nuclear aircraft carriers, the Patriot surface-to-air missile, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and others. Emphasis would be on ''simpler, less costly, and, therefore, more-maintainable weapons.'' Women's issues
Hart has worked hard to win the votes of women. He notes that when he ran for reelection in 1980, the Colorado National Organization for Women (NOW) endorsed him over a woman opponent.
In past years, Hart has won a 100 percent favorable voting record from both the National Women's Political Caucus and NOW. He has supported the Equal Rights Amendment; and in 1978 he favored extension of the deadline for states to ratify it.
On the abortion issue, Hart has regularly supported the pro-choice position. In the last session, he joined in a filibuster to block those against abortion.
Hart has not been a prominent voice on ''rights'' issues in general. But he has been active in efforts to restore cuts in school-lunch and other food programs. He has also spoken out often in favor of pay equity for women.
Statistics show that the majority of America's poor and elderly are women. Hart favors ''lifeline'' utility rates for both the elderly and the poor. These would provide lower prices for subsistence amounts of electricity and natural gas for those who qualify. The environment
The federal Superfund to clean up toxic wastes would be expanded tenfold by Hart. He would get the extra funds by imposing a graduated tax on companies that produce toxic waste - a step he argues would also create an incentive to produce less waste.
On the sensitive acid-rain issue, Hart would require a 50 percent cut in problem-causing sulfur-dioxide emissions.
He also would ban the dumping of toxic wastes on the land. Instead, he would establish federal rules that such wastes be incinerated or detoxified. He would also require that industry use the best technological means to reduce toxic waste just as the Clean Air Act requires industry to lower air pollution. The economy
Priority No. 1 in a Hart White House would be the creation of jobs. In his book, Hart notes that to keep everyone working, the US must create 20 million jobs in less than 10 years, which means ''we must grow at a rate even faster than we did during the boom years after World War II.''
A study of Hart's wide-ranging economic proposals indicates that his ideas fall into three major areas:
1. Getting the US government's own spending and taxing into better balance.
2. Modernizing old industries, and encouraging new ones.
3. Developing people, the nation's most valuable resource.
''We must move beyond the traditional Democratic assumption that the only way to make the economy grow is through massive government spending,'' Hart says. At the same time, Mr. Reagan's ''laissez-faire approach'' must be rejected.
Hart wants a 15-year multibillion-dollar program to put people to work rebuilding bridges, roads, sewers, ports, and water systems. He wants a $12 billion energy jobs bill to weatherproof low-income housing and develop renewable energy technology. He wants a broad commitment to retrain workers displaced by technology and foreign competition. And he wants labor, management, and financiers to hammer out new deals that would make US industry better able to compete with Japan and other nations. Foreign policy
Hart has consistently showed himself to be more dovish than either Reagan or Mondale in the Middle East and Central America. There are two reasons.
In the Mideast, he claims it is better for the United States to find ways to save energy and do without Persian Gulf oil than to spill American blood to defend it.
In Central America he claims ''we must learn that . . . the real enemy is hunger, poverty, and disease - not communism.'' US guns won't solve such problems. He has opposed expansion of the US military presence in Central America and Lebanon. He has urged a cutoff in funds for US-backed rebels fighting the Marxist government in Nicaragua. Arms control
Hart supported the SALT II treaty with the Soviets. He favors the nuclear freeze proposal. He has called for nuclear crisis centers to reduce the risk of war by accident. And he has called for an end to multiple-warhead missiles, which he says ''destabilize'' the current nuclear balance. He opposes Reagan's ''Star Wars'' program of ballistic missile defense.
Final note: a news story like this can give only a small taste of the ''beef.'' Before deciding whether the beef is prime steak, or just unpalatable gristle, the voter may want to at least scan Hart's book, or read a few of his position papers.