Even in the best of times, Washington probably won't see the best of times again soon.

Even the most optimistic economic scenario is unlikely to produce growth in this region that matches the frenzied pace of the mid-1980s. The economy here is basically sound and will pull out of the current recession sooner or later, experts and analysts agree, but the boom of the 1980s was almost certainly a one-time extravaganza.

"Certainly a lot of positive things came together in the last decade," said Christine Chmura, an economist with Richmond-based Crestar Financial Corp. "Deficit spending, high population growth, more women working -- all that made for some good growth in the past decade. I would agree we are unlikely to see growth as strong in the next decade."

Nor are the economic problems the region faces likely to be very different under other possible scenarios: a long recession with a dragged-out Middle East war, or a middle-ground, muddling-through with little immediate change in interest rates or consumer confidence.

These conditions would prolong the current downturn, but they would not change what experts in many industries say is the fundamental problem with the Washington-area economy: It has too much high-priced stuff of every kind -- too many fancy boutiques, too many expensive houses for sale, too many empty premium-class office buildings.

"As my mom used to say, 'Champagne tastes, with beer money,' " said Stephen G. Finn, managing partner of Kenneth Leventhal & Co. in Washington.

Contrary to popular belief, the local economy has been closely linked to the national economy for years. When the nation lost jobs during the recessions of 1974-75 and 1981-82, so did this region. But formerly, the job losses here were smaller and covered a shorter period of months than nationwide. This time around, the region began losing jobs before the country as a whole, according to a study by Richard Groner of the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

"We will not respond quite as rapidly as somewhere else," Groner said. "I don't think we're going to be leading anyone out of the recession."

Working off the office, residential and retail surpluses will be painful, and layoffs already are pervasive in construction, real estate development, financial institutions, defense, retail and other services. But the long-run outcome will be an economy in better balance, experts say.

The fast pace of the 1980s already was proving unsustainable by the time the downturn began. In both 1984 and 1985, the region added more than 100,000 new jobs (by contrast, it lost nearly 15,000 jobs in the year ended last November). There were not enough workers to fill all the jobs by the end of the decade, and area governments had not fully dealt with the transportation and other infrastructure needs generated by the explosion.

A combination of factors put an end to the bubble. Just as Congress was cutting back on defense spending, which had benefited the region's many technology and consulting firms, commercial and residential real estate began to slow down. Consumers, feeling poorer because their houses were worth less, cut back their spending at retail establishments. And the cycle was underway.

National forces will play a role in how the area comes out of this cycle, but only in terms of the timing of the recovery, not its intensity, according to several experts who believe the region will have to work through its own economic problems. And the war in the Persian Gulf will play a mixed role in the course of the Washington economy.

Take, for instance, the possibility that the war ends quickly, with few U.S. casualties. Nationwide, chances are that consumer confidence, a key ingredient in determining how much money individuals inject into the economy, will pick up from its current low levels. The national recession then could be short-lived.

"The national economy has a positive impact," said William C. Harris, Washington regional president of Crestar Bank and president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. Once the nation's economy turns up, "We are going to start to see some positive job growth instead of the negative figures we have seen. Confidence will return, sales will improve."

But by how much? Harris agrees with other experts that a return to the super-boom years is unlikely.

One reason for that caution has to do with the psychological toll exacted on consumers by falling housing prices. People who believe their homes are worth less are likely to buy less of everything, from sundries to autos to designer coats. And the current surplus of high-priced homes on the market will not evaporate, some say, until they are less high-priced.

"To get a normalized housing market in the Washington area you need another six months in which sellers can't sell their houses at the inflated prices they thought they were worth," said Michael L. Mead, vice president for research at Legg Mason and Co. in Baltimore.

A healthy economy would winnow the inventory faster than would a sick one, but principally at the lower end of the price scale, Meade said. Incomes in this area are not high enough to support the current inventory of homes selling for half a million dollars or more.

Similarly, in commercial real estate, a new report by Chmura of Crestar calculates that, assuming a fairly modest recession, about 21 million square feet of office space sits empty in this area. Based on the number of new workers needed to fill that space and the speed at which the area is projected to add jobs, Chmura calculates that the office market could be "back in equilibrium" by the end of 1992 or mid-1993. Because the report was written before war broke out, Chmura now says the '93 date is the most likely.

Finn of Kenneth Leventhal, who specializes in commercial real estate, agreed that an early end to the war and a rebound in the economy would do little to resolve the "mismatch" between office space and office tenants.

"It clearly is a function of oversupply. ... A lot of our commercial office developers created class A office space," he said. "We built this expectation that all our space would be filled by the Fortune 500 {companies}, when it is going to be filled by much more economical type of users."

In the retail world, an early end to the war would likely restore some of the lost optimism that has helped keep consumers out of department stores, boutiques and restaurants. But even before Iraq invaded Kuwait last August -- an event that helped tip the U.S. economy into recession -- Garfinckel's department stores had filed for bankruptcy protection. Its troubles were caused partly by management problems, but other stores also have seen sales slow down.

They won't pick up, one expert says, until the region has fewer stores.

"Washington, like every other town in America, is over-stored, over-retailed," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc. a New York retail financial consulting firm. "We have too many shopping centers eating each other's lunch."

The war itself appears to be a mixed bag for the economy. Some of the region's defense contractors are doing increased business; others do not specialize in the kind of technology or services needed now by the Pentagon. Harris of Crestar said that research and development, in which many local firms excel, could be reduced as the need for firepower goes on.

More broadly, some businesses fear the long-term impact of a costly conflict that puts even more pressure on the federal budget deficit.

As far as downtown office buildings are concerned, for example, a smaller federal government could mean fewer office workers.

"With the war and the pressure we will have on the deficit, the government will be forced to condense its operations," Finn said. "The GSA {General Services Administration} will continue on its path of consolidation of facilities, not building new space."

Analysts caution against too much pessimism about an economy whose underlying base -- relatively high household income, an educated work force, the stabilizing influence of the federal government -- makes it still a powerhouse among major metropolitan areas.

The U.S. Commerce Department predicted in November that the number of jobs here would grow faster than in any other metro area except Los Angeles. Both regions would see growth of over 500,000 by the end of the century. The unemployment rate was 3.8 percent in November, well below the U.S. rate.

One effect of the recession, moreover, will be to make Washington more cost-competitive with other parts of the country. Harris points out that the region is chock-full of office-rent bargains and that companies that previously had decided that locating here was too costly may change their minds.