With summer, Americans usually seek relief from the heat of politics as well as of the weather. The 1984 campaign is no exception to this tradition. That is not to say the two party conventions, the Democrats' in mid-July and the Republicans' in August, are unimportant. They will play a role in helping to write the basic equation for the November election. Particularly if something goes amiss - a vice-presidential choice that must be scrubbed, a snub instead of an embrace in the final unity photo - a convention can affect how the public views the ticket. The party platforms can help describe where the parties find themselves on the spectrum of the issues of the day.
This summer, the Democratic convention will test a new party rule which says that delegates, chosen during the spring primaries, are technically free to change their allegiance on the first presidential nomination ballot. It's largely on this prospect that Gary Hart hopes to upset Walter Mondale's numerical majority. And if the Democrats do something out of the ordinary, like choose a woman as their vice-presidential nominee, this could have considerable effect - on the public perception of the changed place of women in politics, whatever its effect on the election itself.
The national conventions in assembly, not the primary elections, have the final say on everything from rules to candidates. But primarily today's conventions, heavily televised, serve to make the candidates more familiar to voters. They're more like midsummer political oases for the public, while the party technocrats get on with the organizational business of preparing for ''the campaign.''
The country seems to take for granted that when Sept. 1 comes, both parties will have their juices flowing and the campaign will be joined in earnest.
One can only guess now what the presidential campaign will be about. One of the better prospects is that it will run along the theme of ''American nationalism.'' The United States has always had a special sense of mission. It characteristically thinks of itself as successful and good. Into the early 1970s , this American self-esteem suffered a great buffeting - Vietnam, Watergate, the oil embargo, recession. Jimmy Carter tried, but he seemed unable to inspire a revival in confidence. That's where Ronald Reagan came in, in 1980, keying his campaign to a reassertion of national self-esteem in economic, military, and international terms. That's where the Reagan administration is basing its 1984 campaign. If the feeling is strong enough that this is the direction America should continue in, it may not matter all that much what the Democrats do at their convention.
But this is just one hypothesis, whatever its merits.
The important point is that the American public writes its own formula for its presidential decisions. It typically won't be rushed. It weighs its own evidence, often quite apart from matters that politics buffs view excitedly. After a month when Charles Z. Wick, director of the United States Information Agency, was in the news for secretly taping phone calls, only 2 percent of the public could accurately identify him. The public focuses on broad impressions rather than details.
We may tend to think the public is more easily swayed by events, more in a hurry to make political judgments, than in fact it is.
The Democrats have time now to make the best case they can, at their convention, for November. The Reagan-Bush campaign is taking its time, getting its organization ready, pacing exposure of the incumbent.
This is as it should be.
Absent a national crisis, the summer political lull seems part of a familiar deliberative process that should again give Americans confidence in their eventual decision.