As a senator and vice president under Jimmy Carter, Walter F. Mondale was correctly perceived as a liberal on economic issues. But as a presidential candidate, Mondale felt compelled to turn to the right to catch up with and be part of the prevalent mood of the nation.

Mondale confessed to the Democratic Convention in San Francisco that his party's mistakes in the past had helped Ronald Reagan "beat the pants off us" in 1980, and that those mistakes would not be madeagain.

"I want to say something to those of you across our country who voted for Mr. Reagan -- to Republicans, to independents and, yes, to some Democrats: I heard you. And our party heard you," Mondale said.

A "new realism" would assure no defense cuts "that weaken security, no business taxes that weaken our economy, no laundry lists that raid our Treasury," he told the delegates.

So Mondale turned right.

But he did it at a point in time when the nation as a whole had moved even farther in that direction, encouraged by its new affluence under Reagan, and the promise of even more. At a national level, the Democratic Party failed in a pathetic effort at "me-tooism": In the second debate in Kansas City, Mondale even managed to come off as the "hawk" by warning that Reagan was too eager to share advanced technology with the Russians.

And Mondale, fearful of the Reagan charge that he was soft on defense, never proposed a real cut in defense spending, merely a reduction in the rate of growth of the bloated military machine. His reversion to the more liberal and compassionate themes of his earlier career didn't come until the last, desperate days of the campaign.

Worst of all from a traditional Democratic Party view, Mondale capitulated to the demands of organized labor and much of the auto industry for a protectionist solution to the problem of competition with imports. It was protectionism that helped create the Great Depression -- a fact that Mondale knows well, and even used to write about when he was a liberal senator from Minnesota. Yet Mondale allowed the Republicans to have a better policy position on trade issues.

Mondale's drift into a protectionist alliance with the AFL-CIO is also a reminder that the American labor movement, once the linchpin of the progressive-liberal coalition of the Roosevelt-Truman era, has become a weak force. Exit polls show that Mondale got only 53 percent of the union vote despite a total and expensive commitment by the AFL-CIO, and a mere 34 percent of the nonunion vote.

Was Mondale wise to soft-pedal traditional Democratic Party values in an effort to shuck the "big-spender" label (the height of irony while Ronald Reagan was doubling the national debt in a single four-year term)? To be sure, the "practical" politicians who advised Mondale thought there was no percentage in advertising Democratic liberalism. But after a 49-state wipeout, how should their counsel be judged?

Despite his call for a nuclear freeze and a better stand on environmental issues, Mondale presented a blurred image: an ex-liberal, just as tough as Reagan on defense, and yes -- by boldly proposing a tax increase -- even more fiscally sound than the incumbent. But for conservatives, there was no need to desert the genuine article for the imitation. And for liberals brought up in the tradition of Roosevelt-Truman coalition politics, the campaign on these terms was a source of dismay and confusion.

After a debate on economic issues at American University just before the election, Professor Thomas F. Dernburg asked Mondale adviser George Perry, "How come all you liberal economists and people at Brookings sound like Herbert Hoover?"

Dernburg said that "Democratic economics has turned hopelessly conservative: The party that used to try to create jobs and help farmers now isn't doing any of this. All we have is this enormous obsession with the budget deficit -- which is a serious problem, no question about it.

"But as I listened to Mr. Mondale in that first debate, that was his only real economic concern, except his appeal for protectionist domestic auto content legislation."

Brookings Senior Fellow Perry, who had been debating Treasury Undersecretary Beryl Sprinkel, protested that "the really bizarre" role-reversal was Reagan's "flip-flop" on the danger of budget deficits, then responded this way:

"As far as the Democrats go," Perry answered, "I think there has been -- and I think that Walter Mondale represents -- a backing off from some of the politically liberal ideas of 10, 15 years ago as to how much you could accomplish with a lot of special social programs aimed at this area or that area. There has been a rethinking and a recognition that there's a limit as to how much you can do in that way."

He went on to argue that, if the Democrats could straighten out Reagan's budget mess, it would solve many problems automatically. For example, a declining dollar (resulting from a lower deficit) would help make farmers competitive without huge price-support programs. It also would help the auto industry, thus diminishing the need for protectionist measures. Perry referred contemptuously to "local content legislation and all of that stuff."

But on the same day that Perry was disassociating himself from Mondale's commitment to the United Auto Workers' demand for protection, the Democratic candidate was campaigning in Michigan, repeating his shrill warning about good jobs leaving the country, which means that "your kids will be sweeping up around foreign computers." (You should read "Japanese" for "foreign.")

Maybe, for Fritz Mondale, there was never any effective way in which he could have stalled the momentum of an incumbent who exudes personal charm, who is an accomplished TV performer and who is riding the crest of a surging economic recovery.

Looking back on it, the solid economic expansion of the past two years accompanied by a spectacular drop in inflation rates guaranteed Ronald Reagan's reelection over any Democrat conducting any variation of a political strategy. Voters' memories are short: The deep recession of 1981-82 fades into the distant past -- except for the minority that haven't won their jobs back -- and the real economic problems associated with $200 billion deficits are not yet palpable.

In the final days of the campaign, as the polls were foreshadowing the grim, final result, Mondale reached out for the old coalition. He invoked the memory of Roosevelt and Truman and Kennedy, and tried to sound like Mondale the old liberal. But it was a rhetorical exercise, a last gasp, nothing more. It may have been a true reflection of his own gut instincts and innate decency. But it was certainly not supported by the Democratic platform he had chosen to run on.

The self-evident fact is that Mondale's economic program, while correctly stressing the need to deal with the budget deficit, was essentially a negative one.

So we come out of the 1984 election with two conservative parties -- but only one a winner at the national level. To survive as a national force, the Democratic Party has to stand for something positive, especially in terms of economic issues. Right now, it doesn't seem to stand for anything.