The great debate was over, and I asked myself, "What did we learn?"

My first thought was, "I learned that this pair will never displace Lincoln and Douglas." Reagan reads prepared material well, but Anderson is better at ad libs, has more energy and looks more alive.

Close behind that first reaction was the realization that the Republican Party's diversity of opinion is beginning to resemble that of the Democratic Party.

Fifty years ago, a Republican was almost always a conservative, but a Democrat might be a conservative, radical, New Dealer, or a middle-of-the-roader. The Democratic Party was the butt of many jokes because it tried to reconcile so many different viewpoints and therefore endured so many internal wrangles. Will Rogers used to say, 'I'm not a member of any organized political party. I'm a Democrat."

Now the Republicans are going through a somewhat similar movement, with room under their umbrella for everybody from Mac Mathias to Ronald Reagan to George Bush to John Anderson. This may be a good thing, because it tends to preserve the two-party system we're accustomed to, and it encourages political stability.

However, it must be noted that the two-party system has been stretched to the breaking point this year. Kennedy refused to give up until the convention votes were counted, and Anderson on running even after the convention votes gave the nomination to Reagan.

The American voter has from time to time given significant support to independent presidential candidates, but not enough support to elect one. Anderson used his final moments of debate time to argue that he could be the first independent to win.

The debate also helped remind us how greatly a politician's positions and alliances can change over the years -- and sometimes overnight Reagan and Anderson have both been criticized by some for having drifted to the left, and both have been praised by others for recognizing the need to modify their conservative views.

On July 18, I wrote about my having wagered (and lost) a dollar on the proposition that if the vice presidency were offered to Gerald Ford, he'd take it. Despite losing the bet when Ford declined, I said my basic view of politics and politicians remained unchanged: "When the chips are down," I wrote, "the first law of politics is, 'Get yourself or your party elected. Regardless."'

I added: "People who said on television 24 hours earlier that they could never feel comfortable with a candidate so liberal (or conservative) deny on the next night that they ever said they wouldn't support him. And the candidate who last night was a spokesman for moderation tonight accepts whole heartedly a conservative running mate and a conservative platform.

"People who bitterly opposed George Bush yesterday will tell you today that a Reagan-Bush ticket is ideal -- and if you don't take drastic steps to stop them, they'll explain why.

"This is standard operating procedure in both parties, and it is one of the reasons American voters have become disillusioned.

"After the Democrats hold their convention and it is finally hammered into Ted Kennedy's head that he has lost, he will be faced with a similar choice: close ranks and support the nominee or be branded a trator to the party and lose Brownie points in 1984.

"I am willing to risk another dollar in a wager that Kennedy will campaign for Carter, just as Bush will campaign for Reagan, whom he bitterly opposed, and Ford will campaign for Reagan, whom he bitterly opposed. The candidate you excoriated yesterday is the nominee for whom you campaign today."

That column appeared here on July 18. It brought in several letters that denounced me for writing such trash about Ted Kennedy. The letter writers told me that their man would never stoop so low as to compromise with, or work for, that evil man Jimmy Carter.

I'm afraid my critics were naive. The status of the current political situation is rather easy to discern if one observes it dispassionately.

The Democrats are a little to the left and the Republicans are a little to the right. But both parties now include people whose views extend from one end of the political spectrum to the other. Both contain supporters and candidates who have abandoned old positions and taken up new ones -- and reserve the right to shift again if more change seems appropriate. Both sides will play politics shamelessly (as in promising to reduce government spending while simultaneously increasing military outlays by huge amounts). And the politicians on both sides (officeholders, candidates and party officials) stand ever ready to compromise programs and principles in their quest for votes.

The voter, that innocent lamb, worries about qualities like honesty, integrity and fair-mindedness. Politicians worry about winning.