Ladies and gentlemen, take your seats. The great 1982 election debates are about to begin. On your left, wearing an ordinary suit and smiling inappropriately, is the former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter. On your right, wearing an Indian headdress and a pained expression, is another former president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. Let us all try to keep awake.

Of course, no one will frame the debate in exactly those terms. But if the White House has its way, the upcoming congressional elections will amount to a debate between the near past, symbolized by Carter, and the more distant and nostalgic past, symbolized by the man whose portrait was moved into the Oval Office and whose presidency Ronald Reagan so much admires, Calvin Coolidge.

It was of the Coolidge era that the president once said, "I don't know if the country has ever had a higher level of prosperity . . . . And he [Coolidge] actually reduced the national debt and he cut taxes several times across the board." This is precisely what the president himself has tried to do by essentially reverting to Coolidge-era economics.

The trouble is that these policies were ultimately a failure for Coolidge and so far they have been a failure for Reagan also. Unemployment is approaching 10 percent, the economy is stagnating and a real economic debacle looms by 1983 if American industry, already weakened by the current recession, has to undergo yet another round of high interest rates. It would seem that the last thing the president needs is to reaffirm his belief in Coolidge-era economics.

But he has. And the explanation for that can be found in the public opinion polls. They say two seemingly contradictory things. The first is that, with the exception of Justin Dart, just about everyone thinks that nearly two years of the Reagan administration has left them worse off than they were before. But when voters are asked what they think the effects of the Reagan program will be "in the long run," a majority, according to Gallup, is optimistic.

What can explain this apparent contradiction? How can people feel that a program that had failed so dismally in the short run will succeed in the long run? The way to answer that is simply to ask the second question another way. Ask voters if they still believe in a balanced budget, hard work, less government interference, decentralization of the federal government, a strong defense and moral values out of an Andy Hardy picture -- the core of the Reagan program. The answer to that is yes. Taken together they amount to a set of values, beliefs and, in some cases, myths that harken back to the Coolidge era and constitute the American ideology. This is what you and I believe.

So the obvious strategy for the Reagan White House is to reaffirm these Coolidgesque qualities -- the qualities that elected Ronald Reagan in the first place -- and blame the current mess not on the Reagan program, but on the implementation of it by the Congress -- particularly the Democratic-controlled House. At the same time, the White House wants to trot out Jimmy Carter to ask the question: Do you want to go back to the way things were? This is the reason for the current Republican ad campaign in which people are asked if they want to "stay the course" or go back -- back to the Carter era.

But the issue is not which past, Carter's or Coolidge's, is the better model for the future -- they are both awful -- but whether the present program is succeeding. By almost any measure, it is not, and nothing much will change if the president thinks that the choices are between one failed economic policy and another failed economic policy. There is a third choice -- an economic program that makes sense for the times. After all, a refusal to raise taxes may be the essence of Coolidge-era economic policy, but raising them to avoid another rise in interest rates does not necessarily resurrect Jimmy Carter.

This, though, is not the choice the president gives us. Instead, he is framing a debate between two of his discredited predecessors, almost assuring that the future can only turn out to be a version of the past. Coolidge may seem better than Carter at the moment, but we all know who's waiting in the wings. Let me introduce Herbert Clark Hoover.