THE race for the presidency, which won't be decided for 18 months still, is well under way. The president, seeking a second term, is in ''campaign mode,'' and a full complement of Republican challengers are pursuing voters from New Hampshire to California. We hear a lot about the early start and how much money is needed to mount a campaign. These matters aren't unimportant, but they are incidental to the main story.
Commentators often get caught up in the political game. We need to remind ourselves that a democratic election has only one important function: choosing leaders who will manage government so as to advance the public's goals. The key question is, what are Americans looking for from the president and Congress they will elect on Nov. 5, 1996?
Both parties face big challenges. That of President Clinton and the Democrats begins with the fact that the core of their political approach since the New Deal has been rejected. Signs of this reversal were evident long before last year's balloting, but the abrupt shift in control of Congress, and even more in the agenda of congressional action, has really driven it home.
We Americans are a very individualist sort, but this doesn't mean we lack a sense of ourselves as a collectivity. Many of our deepest needs and interests as individuals can be met only through actions that involve the entire society. In particular, we care deeply about the American nation and want things that enhance it -- that make it ''more a nation,'' achieving more fully the aspirations of its people.
On the question, though, of government's role in extending the promise of American nationality, there's been a huge shift since the New Deal era. Key to the Democrats' success from FDR through the 1960s was the judgment that more government was needed to advance our individual claims. America could be made a better nation through federal programs that entailed more social spending and more regulation. The Democrats triumphed as the party of this ''governmental nationalism.''
Today it's sometimes said that Americans have ''turned against government.'' I think that's incorrect. The public hasn't rejected government, but rather the idea that more government holds the promise of resolving our most demanding national problems. A clear majority of Americans now believe that government taxes too much, spends too much, intrudes where it's not needed, and that we need to look far more imaginatively to nongovernmental solutions -- and where government is the best instrument, to more decentralized ones.
Mr. Clinton was elected in 1992 in part because he seemed to many voters a ''new kind of Democrat'' -- who in fact understood that the call for more government had been rejected. But he then proceeded to make centralized, government-directed health-care reform the keystone of his administration's first two years.
As campaign '96 moves into high gear, it's not clear whether the president and his advisers understand the magnitude of the philosophic shift the country has been experiencing over the last quarter-century. Nor is it clear whether they are inclined to change direction decisively, even if they understand the nation's mood.
After years of considerable hesitation, Republicans seem aware of the depth of the public's rejection of governmental nationalism. They have made impressive gains as a result.
Some of their announced candidates, including Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, seem to have difficulty, nonetheless, distinguishing between the idea that more government is progress -- which he and a large national majority reject -- and the idea that governmental answers as such are flawed. Only a small minority hold the latter view.
For the GOP generally, the challenge in campaign '96 involves responding more effectively to the public's other major claim. Americans want a less government-centered approach to national problems, but we also want progress in extending equality. The Democrats have long bested their rivals on this dimension. Despite their abundant problems, they continue to be seen as the more egalitarian party.
Americans have never understood equality to require equal outcomes, but they remain deeply committed, though, to the ideal of social equality -- that each citizen is the full moral equal of every other, regardless of station, until and unless he or she proves otherwise. And we aspire to a condition where each person has an opportunity comparable to that of every other to realize individual promise.
The Republican candidates for '96 don't need to establish their bona fides on moderating government's reach. They do need to make clear that their suspicions of the modern interest-group liberal state -- which are widely shared -- do not come linked to a less than egalitarian view of the nation's promise.