The 1980 Republican convention was either the beginning or the end of something. We won't find out which until November.

Ever since 1964, the delegates at this convention have been waiting to experience that same exhilaration, that same satisfaction that comes from thinking you can change the world. The year 1964 turned into disaster, and this is the year they've all been waiting for when that horrible experience can be corrected. Ronald Reagan can make things right; his supporters have no doubt of that. Barry Goldwater said all the right things but Ronald Reagan can do them.

People who don't believe strongly in anything live happier lives. To be a strong believer requires experiencing severe disappointments. But it is the strong believers who generate change. The question presented by the 1980 Republican convention is whether that change has already occurred or whether it is just beginning.

Our country thrives on change. It can't get enough of it. We are unwilling to decide what we are, so we try new ideas until they bore us. Foreigners think we're crazy. We are beginning to wonder ourselves. But if you're psychotioc, you might be a genius as well, and Americans will always succumb to the temptation to find out which it is. Was Barry Goldwater crazy or just ahead of his time? Are we already bored with the changes he recommended, or are we going to pursue them even further? The 1980 election will decide these questions. Whatever the outcome, the Republican Party will benefit.

When Barry Goldwater stood before the convention last Tuesday, I couldn't help reflecting on how great an influence he has been on this country. cThis man, who is best remembered for running a terrible campaign for president and for taking a terible licking at the polls, singlehandedly corrected a dangerous drift of our government toward stifling the initiative of individuals and raised some embarrassing questions for the elitists who dared to demean the virtues of limited government. He also reminded us to be careful in dealing with the Russians, a reminder that has been valuable as four presidents have begun the complicated process of trying to negotiate a lasting peace. Barry Goldwater has been accused of being a crude man, but this is still a crude country. He has consistently recalled this fact to us during a time when we were in danger of getting too big for our britches.

But are the principles he spoke of in "The Conscience of a Conservative" now reminders that we will carry with us as we move into the future, or are they capable of determining that future course itself? If Ronald Reagan wins the election, the hope of his supporters will be that he will demonstrate that those principles are capable of running a government. If he loses, it will not be the end of conservativism, but Barry Goldwater's reign over its philosophy will have ended. It will take a new form; others will seek to define it, and it may take many years before it again obtains the cohesion that has marked its political expression over the last 16 years.

Barry Goldwater was the philosopher; Ronald Reagan is the articulator. If the 1980 election results in defeat for the Republicans, a new order will prevail. No longer will it be possible to blame the Republican moderates for the defeat of conservative candidates. George Bush's presence on the ticket gives moderates a reason to work hard for the ticket's success. If Reagan loses, Goldwaterism will have finally lost. There is no Reagan standing in the wings to hold the movement together for yet another try. Indeed, the competition will be fierce among such younger conservatives as Jack Kemp, Phil Crane, Paul Laxalt and Jesse Helms to become the new Messiah, the new definer of conservative principles.

The conservatives have maintained a stranglehold over the Republican Party during these last 16 years because they have been wise enough to stay united within the bounds established by Goldwater. If they must redefine, their unity will be shattered. Should the long-dormant moderate wing of the party be smart enough to unite behind a single candidate for president in 1984, it could emerge as the controlling faction in the party.

In the last four years, a very encouraging sign has developed in the American electorate. After almost 20 years in which the people have been very unsure as to what kind of leadership they preferred, they are finally tired of drifting. No longer is the nuance of a presidential candidate's beliefs in the issues as important as the central question of whether a man can govern the country. Under circumstances in which Jimmy Carter's presidency has been a disaster, in which the Republican Party has truly united and in which Reagan has been accepted as a man entitled to make his case, Goldwaterism couldn't hope for a better situation in which to press its ascendancy to power. It has got more than a fair chance; this election should be difficult to lose. But if failure is the fact in November, the way will be cleared for a new ascendancy in the party. For the Republican moderates, the long night will be over; for the people, there is the chance that their search for leadership can be satisfied.