WITH SEN. Edward Kennedy edging rightward and President Carter belligerently defending his center turf against all interlopers, Gov. Jerry Brown deserves a serious examination.

This assertion will undoubtedly be greeted with skepticism, for Brown's ideas have been obscured in a media fog -- and, to be fair, a fog that Brown's own temperamental and ideological ambiguities have helped create. Still, Brown's case has not been helped by the press. One has to go back to George Romney in 1968 to think of a big-time presidential candidate gettig a worse mauling.

There are really two different kinds of criticism of Jerry Brown. First is the kind of ad hominem attack in the national media. Its essentials are that Brown is a "flake," a "kook" or a "California crazy"; that Brown manipulates the media; that he is a triumph of symbol over substance, and that he is unprincipled, faithless, cynical, committed only to his own ambition and the ego rewards that come with high office. These intimations of bad character in Brown come from all across the political spectrum.

The kook/flake charge is silly. Anyone who knows him at all or who has paid attention to his career these last five years laughs at any depiction of Brown as a mellowed-out, laid-back California narcissist and hedonist. Brown is uptight, controlled in manner. He doesn't use or understand "Calspeak." Neither does he discourse in Zen koans or medieval Latin. He is almost dandyish in dress, almost never seen without a tie. His views on sex and marriage are "boring, Irish-Catholic straight," as one of his oldest friends put it.

What puzzles people about Brown politically is his embrace of many of the ideas and policies associated with the left wing of the Democratic Party while acting as tight as any Republican with public money and sounding as bearish as, say, Ronald Reagan, on the chances of much good coming out of central bureaucracies. Throughout Brown's five years as governor there has been no general tax increase in California. Neither have spending levels increased save for inflation. That means that the whole range of the state government's financial involvement with the poor, the elderly, the schools, the cities, the environment, transportation and the like has remained fixed at about the levels reached in the Reagan regime.

But that doesn't mean there was no change in state government from Reagan to Brown. Different people with different priorities are in the command posts. Different interest groups (labor, consumers, minorities, women, environmentalists) have access to Gov. Brown from those that had access to Gov. Reagan (agribusiness, developers, highway interests).

Brown is loath to set down any list of "objectives" for his administration. He is not comfortable when a reporter asks him about his "vision" of the good society. Gray Davis, Brown's chief of staff, tries to express it by saying that they will have done what they set out to do if when they leave office Californians will have gained a new appreciation of the finiteness of our resources and the limits that this must set on our desires.

Brown, it is clear, does not admire the Hamiltonian style in chief executives -- the "bold," "energetic," "innovating," "chief legislator," of which FDR was the real thing and Jack Kennedy merely the mock.

To an interviewer, Brown insists that he really does believe in the separation of powers. He likes to say that he regards hmself as a catalyst, as part of a process of resolution and decision rather than as the sole author of all action. Brown has an almost mystical belief in something he calls "the process", by which he seems to mean something remarkably like the pluralists' clash of interests mediated by government.

To people schooled in the traditions of liberal Democratic activism, all of this appears as dereliction of duty or plain old Republican passivism. It is the foundation of the "symbols instead of substance" and "do-nothing governor" charges.

Brown, quite naturally, demurs. Liberals, he believes, "often deal in shibboleths." Humphrey-Hawkins, which Brown supported, for example, is a shibboleth. "Does anyone think that it is a 'real' answer to unemployment?" he asks. Or, "If I support increased appropriations for all kinds of special education programs then I am supposed to be taking real action. But who can still believe that giving more money to the education bureacrats, to the same people who have been presiding over the decline of the schools, is going to reverse the process? Pouring money into programs you don't believe are working seems to me to be the essence of symbolic action."

Brown insists that many of what his critics call "merely symbolic gestures" are instead real or substantive actions. Recently, for example, he appointed the liberal black former congresswoman, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. "Is Yvonne a 'mere symbol?'" he asks. "The L.A. board is one of the most powerful governing bodies in the world. It has never had a woman or a black. Yvonne is a major black leader, a leading liberal. In appointing her I changed the board from one with a conservative majority to one with a liberal majority. I call that action, not symbols."

Brown makes the same claim for the most controversial of all his appointments, that of his friend and former cabinet officer Rose Elizabeth Bird to be chief justice of the California Supreme Court. Bird had no judicial experience, enjoyed a modest legal career and was a tough and very political secretary of agriculture in Brown's cabinet. Her appointment outragd conservatives, produced plenty of apprehension in the legal community and from the start sharply divided the court itself. She and the court were subjects to an unprecedented commission of inquiry growing out of charges that she or one of her allies on the court withheld an opinion detested by law-enforcement circles until Bird had won her hairbreadth public confirmation in November 1978.

Critics dismiss the Bird appointment as another of Brown's "symbolic gestures." A reporter asked Brown why he didn't appoint any of two or three quite distinguished liberal women already on the bench. "You don't understand," he said. "Any of those people you mention, while they are good lawyers, are members of the 'old boys' club.' Rose is not one of the old boys. She has a different perspective. The courts are dominated by a single outlook, a well-to-do white male outlook, an upper-class outlook, if you will. We have to enlarge the outlook of the bench. Rose will do that. She will shake things up. That's why I appointed her and not just to get a woman on the court."

It is not only to the courts that Brown has directed his attention. He has been transforming the dozens of boards and commissions that regulate and monitor so much of the everyday activities of Californians. It would be tedious to enumerate all of the changes. The state Public Utilities Commission can serve as the most important example.

The PUC was a product of the progressive era and the administration of Gov. Hiram Johnson early in this century. In a familiar process, the commission became the captive of the very interests it was created to tame and regulate. But no longer. The five-member commission now is made up solely of Brown appointees. It couples pro-consumer and conservationist orientations with a sophisticated grasp of the utilities' problems. The utilities don't like the conservation regulations and some of the rate-setting innovations, but they live with them and prosper.

It is fair to say that California is showing the way into the new energy environment even though, under Brown, it has turned away from further nuclear development. Brown has taken a lot of ridicule for his commitment to discovering and developing new, nonnuclear energy sources. But he looks better and better on this issue. Californians don't believe that it is kooky to think about solar, wind and other still more novel renewable energy sources. California Republicans have tried linking these things to Brown's alleged "flakiness," and it has cost them.

All along the line -- air pollution control, transportation policy, forest conservation and the like -- Brown administration people have been challenging major corporate interests. They don't always win. Sometimes they back down. But that they are involved in substantive action seems undeniable. Brown argues that all this is the real action. What he calls "legislative laundry lists" and "10-point programs" he dismisses as more symbolic than real, thus turning the argument around on his critics.

Arguments that Brown is "unprincipled" tend to focus on his alleged "turnaround" on Propostion 13 in 1978 and his embrace of the movement to call a constitutional convention to get a balanced-budget amendment.

Having led the fight against the Proposition 13 initiative measures, repeatedly calling it a "rip-off" and a "snare," Brown, following the voters' overwhelming approval of Proposition 13, said that he "recognized" and "accepted" the decision and that he would return to Sacramento and give his full energy to the implementation of the property-tax-cutting measure. When Brown made this accession to the will of the voters, he was in political trouble, running even or trailing the Republican nominee in the best state polls. That was June. By September, Brown had virtually obliterated any memory that he had once been the leading foe of Howard Jarvis and the Proposition 13 forces and had successfully identified himself with the "spirit of Proposition 13." He won by a landslide that November.

Brown argues that he did not do a "turnaround." He claims, correctly enough, that he has always sought to hold down government spending and has been more successful at it than Reagan was. Brown also claims, accurately, that he had tried to get a better property tax bill through before Jarvis came along but that it foundered in the legislature over his efforts to put a progressive feature into the property tax assessments. Brown's case is a good one. He could not very well have said that he would refuse to recognize the landslide victory of Proposition 13 and, therefore, work to frustrate its implementation. His assumption of leadership in carrying out Proposition 13 does not, of itself, condemn him as "unprincipled."

It was the style that did him in. He skipped breathlessly to his tryst with middle-class resentment. Brown turned into an almost simpering votary of Jarvis.

From the pinguid embrace of Jarvis to advocacy of a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution is not a giant step. It is this willingness to ally himself with the unsavory folk calling for a convention to write a balanced-budget amendment that liberals finally detest most in Brown. The liberal imagination easily conjures visions of a conclave of fanatics, eyes glinting, lips tightened in stifled rage and resentment, joylessly gutting the Bill of Rights, prohibiting abortion, guaranteeing each person the right to arm himself to the teeth. That Brown, in pursuit of his ambition to be president, could countenance the calling of such a convention was for liberals the final proof of Brown's irresponsibility or recklessness.

Few, moreover, believed that Brown was even interested in balancing the federal budget. Most assumed that he was simply trying to position himself to the right of Carter and Kennedy on the government spending issue, riding the "spirit of Proposition 13" to a higher position in the polls. That, of course, only made more heinous his willingness to risk the parade of horribles that the constitutional convention supposedly entails.

Brown, first of all, brushes aside the charge of "irresponsibility." He thinks that there are plenty of safeguards against the feared right-wing spasm of a convention. But he also doesn't think that a constitutional convention would have such a character.

"That's just 'elitist democracy,'" he insists. "Elite democracy is the belief that only the highly educated and well-to-do elites have a real commitment to democratic values, while rank-and-file citizens are viewed as ever ready to junk the Bill of Rights, repress unorthodoxy, establish majority tyranny and so on. Why do so many liberals think that only people in the media and in government can be trusted with democratic liberties?" he adds.

Brown, in fact, thinks that it would not be difficult to confine such a convention to the single topic of the balanced budget, but he is not certain that it ought to be confined to the one subject. Brown is surely right about "elite democracy," but he doesn't understand that a constitutional convention shouldn't be used as a safety valve for present discontents.

Brown is less certain of himself on the question of the balanced budge. As one might expect, he is at least as interested in the symbolic value of an amendment as he is in the possibility that a couple of balanced budget in a row might stop inflation in its tracks. He know that he has no solid evidence that unbalanced budgets "cause" inflation. He knows that there is no longer anything resembling a consensus among economists on causes and cures of inflation.

Brown, in fact, has virtually ceased looking to economists for clues about what must be done. "There is no 'managerial' solution," he says. It is going to take a political decision by the American people. He admits that right now the "people" can't make such a decision and anyway, have no confidence in their ability to do so. He believes that that is where a balanced-budget amendment becomes important.

"It would be a concrete step," he says. "It would be a sign that government had at least brought itself under control and was capable of moving in purposeful ways to stop inflation. That's the insidious thing about inflation. It spreads wide the sense of things being out of control. It feeds feelings of passiveness and helplessness. Someone has to get a grip on it because trust in government is melting away."

Brown has been saying these things for a long time and practicing them as governor. It is not some sudden cynical departure for him. The bedrock for these views is loss of faith in the capacity of government -- large-scale, centralized, bureaucratic, modern government -- to manage this society through planning.

Brown, then, is not kooky. He does manipulate or seek to manipulate the media. So, of course, do Kennedy and Reagan and Connaly and Carter. Brown engages in symbolic communication quite regularly. But he can properly deny that he takes symbolic action only or that he is a do-nothing governor. Brown is not unprincipled, and it is more than a little ironic that writers who find him to be too unprincipled even now beat the drum for a heavyweight championship bout between Ted Kennedy and John Connally. Brown is a public man with public ends. There is a clear and consistent pattern to his actions and statements.

But Jerry Brown is not ready to be president. He is not yet a political leader but only a rather popular political celebrity. A political leader lights up dangerous and unknown ground and leads a people across it. A leader articulates yearnings of the people and shows them the way to a realization of what is yearned for. A leader builds a movement that will live on when the leader is gone. Being elected and reelected are only conditions of leadership, not its definition.

Brown must disabuse himself of the notion that a chief executive is merely a catalyst, just another step in something called "the process." He must define problems and offer solutions. Brown must also clarify and certainly change his opposition to governmental planning. It is fun to be a gadfly and make jokes about planners and their execrable prose and their 10-point programs. But if we don't pla, what are we to do? Brown cannot believe that something like Adam Smith's invisible hand is going to lead us safely through a world of limited resources and technological overkill.

Jerry Brown is estranged from much of what is established in America. He is iconoclastic. He is ready for new ways of doing things. But he is also estranged from the New Deal and from the liberalism of his father's generation. He is bereft of their optimism about what government can do to solve or ease human dilemmas and agonies. When he comes to believe that something can be done and when he shares his convictions with the public, he will be on the way to political leadership. He will come close to doing what Pat Caddell once wrongly gave him credit for doing, for "making a new definition of American politics."