The award for the most graphic metaphor of this campaign goes to Vice President Walter F. Mondale, who said that the White House has become the nation's fire hydrant. Well put. But political leaders of Mondale's generation have had a lot to do with that. Having preached that the government has an answer for almost every problem, can they now be surprised that government and -- given our propensity to personalize -- the president are blamed for every frustration and failure?

No matter. The election's victor, whoever he is, will be dogged by this legacy. The paradox of modern government is that, as it has become stronger, it also has become weaker. Presidents and politicians are called upon to do more, and yet the more they do, the less they are liked and the more they ensnare government in contradiction. Poll after poll shows a decline in public esteem for political leaders. Until someone masters this paradox, presidential popularity may be a thing of the past.

The paradox, of course, disappears upon examination. You cannot jump rope and stand on your head at the same time. But multiple government commitments -- both in law and in rhetoric -- demand precisely this feat. When it doesn't happen, disillusion descends on both those who expect rope jumping and those who expect head standing. Jimmy Carter is a case in point. He actually tried to keep many of his promises, but he simply made too many that were inconsistent.

The exit from this trap is as easy to state as it is difficult to conceive. We need a new sense of limited government, of where public responsibility ends and private responsibility begins. But how? The campaign also did little to clarify the boundaries.

Ronald Reagan talked about limited government in generalities, but forgot them when he got to specific programs. He favors a constitutional amendment outlawing abortions, which is to say he favors using government to force his own morality on others. President Carter urged a new partnership of business, labor and government; as practiced by Carter, partnership means more centralization of power in government. John B. Anderson had some ingenious proposals, but no consistent theme.

Logical lines can be drawn between collective responsibility -- the government -- and private responsibility, but this is a task that our politicians now find either beneath them or beyond them. It's a small wonder that both business and labor today increasingly regard political success as a substitute for economic success. Without a sense of limited government, we have turned more and more economic life over to political life.

The same thing has happened elsewhere. Regarding government as an instrument to be used to enforce values they favor, self-styled liberals have discovered that self-styled conservatives retaliate by seeking to use government for their purposes. The most pointless of these episodes involved the Equal Rights Amendment, a largely symbolic measure that fired a fierce reaction.

We have neither liberals nor conservatives -- as if labels really mean that much -- but simply two tribes of moral crusaders who have contrived to turn largely private matters into political demolition derbies. The danger is that politics not only becomes increasingly mean-spirited, but also corrupts many other areas of national life.

The economy already shows ill effects. Protective measures born of a Depression mentality have gone too far. Various government programs -- trade restrictions, bail-outs for large companies, farm supports, minimum-wage laws, loan guarantees and subsidies -- magnify the economy's inflationary bias. Under the guise of solving the problem of some individual group, we simply create a bigger problem for everyone.

A new post-Depression division of labor between government and everyone else suggests itself. Let companies and workers face more of the uncertainty of free markets: the uncertainty that inhibits them from indiscriminately raising wages and prices. Let government, on the other hand, resolve the questions of collective responsibility that demand collective decisions: the environment, for example, where individual company action is futile.

Companies, government agencies and individuals are no different from children: Unless they have clear responsibilities, they will behave irresponsibly. But neither Congress nor the White House is much interested in clear definitions of public and private responsibility. Instead, the drift is toward legislation of public and private irresponsibility. Consider the current Congress's contribution on energy.

Congress scuttled the Energy Mobilization Board, an agency that would have attempted to assure that energy projects received timely decisions from federal and state agencies responsible for issuing environmental permits. But, for synthetic-fuel projects that can win necessary approvals, Congress enacted legislation providing large subsidies.

Precisely the opposite ought to have happened. Congress ought to have assumed clear-cut accountability for political decisions and left normal commercial risks to business. Risk is not some abstract principle, but rather the force that weeds success from failure, the efficient from the inefficient. Will government end up subsidizing silly and wasteful projects?

Good question. The more areas of activity that come to be controlled by government, the greater the inevitable pressures on government for yet further actions and -- down the road -- more disappointment. The more people see their neighbors flocking to government, for whatever reason, the more they feel impelled to do likewise.

Politicians such as Mondale who worry about the hydrant effect ought to have had the foresight and fortitude to see the virtues of limited government. Government can't do everything. It needs to discriminate for its own good. Practical politicians need to develop general principles -- understandable principles that can command public respect -- for resisting some of the insistent pressures that make government unworkable and ultimately destroy public confidence. If the next president can't do that, the next four years may be no better than the last four.