THE CYNIC in me would say this about Ronald Reagan: We are about to discover the true depth of his shallowness, the sincere ease with which he abandons principle and high purpose in favor of short-run political accommodation.

The idealist disagrees. The Old Order is dead, I tell myself, and I can't wait to see what the New Order looks like.

I'm afraid I never will. The cynic has seen it all before, heard the same promises, watched with perverse pleasure as events bankrupted good intentions of new presidents. Ronald Reagan, on close examination, is merely trynig to lead the Republicans into the Sixties. His true ambitions are as modest as his intellect. The Democrats, on the other hand, have no ambitions at all. They have seen the future -- and it scared hell out of them.

The idealist wants to believe something deeper and more fundamental lies ahead. The cowboy himself may not see the future clearly, but he can invent it, with a little help from his serious friends. Since their organizing principles are so different, the results must bed radically different too.

I have been having this argument with myself for many months, roughly since the Republican convention in Detroit when I first began to grasp the powerful optimism and, yes, idealism which fueled the Reagan movement. In some moments, I still think of it as an elaborate con game, in which the most devoted plaers will become the biggest suckers, the disappointed victims of their own sincere intent. Other times, squinting at Reagan's unusual political skills, I can see the ingredients for a dramatic era. His artfulness, his dissembling geniality and western air of innocence, is a perfect cover for new ideology. Nobody thought FDR was a giant until he became one; Walter Lippmann thought Roosevelt also lacked the intellectual powers required for the Oval Office.

Well, if I had to put my money down today, I would bet on the cynic's side of the argument, not as a question of Reagan's sincerity or even of the rightness of his principles (though I do question both), but more as a determinist judgment of what is possible at this particular moment in American history.

If this were 1932 and the country were frozen in economic depression, then anything would be possible, even the fundamental reordering which Reaganites long for. Severe change flows from severe necessity. But, after all the super-heated campaign oratory is stilled. I do not yet see the necessary preconditions that would free Reagan to do what, in his heart, I know he would like to accomplish -- the dismantling of the moderal liberal welfare state.

On the other hand, I've been wrong before (perhaps you noticed) and I genuinely hope I am wrong now. Deep down in my anarchical soul, where I am boundlessly curious and optimistic about the possibility of America, I believe that political collision and nonviolent disruption are nearly always creative, when they are about serious ideas. Besides, I always like a good argument.

The argument has already begun among the Republicans, privately right now, and I suspect it will continue noisily over the next four years, roughly along the lines I have already described. Should Reagan be a cynical realist about the future, accommodating the hoary political realities of what's possible, accepting the scattered victories of gradualism? Or should he strike out boldly from the start with a genuinely original agenda, one that will make lots of folks mad but holds the hope of long-term political benefits for a revived Republican Party?

Of course, the choice is never that pure. Presidents and policymakers will argue, first of all, over what works -- what specific measures might produce a stable, robust economy which doesn't fluctuate between outrageous inflation and deadening slowdowns. The interesting thing about this new administration, however, is that some serious people, a few at least, really do see the necessary solution as a major departure from the past, an ideologial shift which is deeper than the seasonal adjustments of budgets and programs.

The family debate, as one participant put it, is essentially an argument between "accommodationists" and "ideologues." Roughly speaking, the "accommodationists" are the retreads who have been around the Washington track before, political realists who know the full force of bipartisan backlash when an administration tries to cut the wrong programs. The "ideologues" are true believers, convinced that only a grand sweep through the federal leviathan can restore a healthy nation. The "ideologues" are somewhat opaque about the political implications of what they propose, a little like dentists who don't worry much about the pain they inflict as long as the drill is attacking the right cavity. On the other hand, the "ideologues" do have a vision. And they know that the "accommodationist" approach is the one which has been failing presidents for the last decade or so.

Actually, it's a three-sided argument because there is another group which I would call the "moralists," the folks who want to use federal power to reestablish moral orthodoxy, school prayers, no more abortions, no more "liberating" movements or social engineering for equality. The other two groups at the Republicans table would like the "moralists" to cool it for a while, to let the new administration focus primarily on economic questions -- shrinking the federal government, freeing fee enterprise and so forth -- and avoid the divisive social issues, at least for a season or two. I do not think the "moralists" are going to cooperate. They have been most vengeful in the past when politicians tried to shun their agenda and I expect they will be again, if the Reagan presidency tries to finesse their objectives.

The main argument, in any case, will not be about conservative values. The argument will be about liberalism. What is the true nature of the liberal welfare state? Whom does it serve and whom does it slight? What is the real political support for this labyrinth of federal programs which Reagan inherits? If the new president wants to hack away at the confusion and duplication and gargantuan intrusion of the federal government, how much does he want to hack? And where should he begin?

When one asks those questions, the "conservative" appoach suddenly divides into many different meanings. The "accommodationists," more sensitive to the pragmatic political consequences, would exempt huge sectors of the Democratic legacy from the knife. They know that federal programs like housing and farm price supports and even labor laws are too precious to well defined interest groups to tamper with deeply. They would trim on the margins, of course, but they would not threaten the essential state. When these conservatives cut the budget, they will tend to go after the federal programs which serve non-Republican clients. We all know who they are.

The "ideologues," while I fully intend to tease their naivete in the months ahead, are ultimately more admirable in their purpose. They have a consistent critique of interest-group liberalism, one which would be much fairer if it were truly to be applied by President Reagan. They would go across the board, capping and shrinking and eliminating, in a way which unsettled the rich and powerful corporate interests as well as the middle-class families who do not see themselves as federal beneficiaries -- and, of course, the poor. They would try to hack back the sacred cows of subsidy as well as the vulnerable bleeding-heart programs. Sacred cows like low-interest loans for farmers, NASA, housing subsidies, highway construction money, college tuition loans for middle-class families, obsolete grant programs for industrial development, low-interest export loans for major manufacturers, and so on.

Four years ago, when another new president was coming to town, full of hope and promise, I suggested in print that the federal labyrinth could only be understood in these terms:

"Think of Washington as a grand bazaar, a steamy marketplace filled with tents and tables, an elegant bazaar where the din of buying and selling drowns out the patriotic music and the coloring of expenseive lawyers mingles with the sweaty aroma of hard bargaining. This is what Washington is -- not a government, but a sprawling marketplace."

What gets bought and sold? Everything from airline routes to urban renewal grants, subsidies, and intangible concessions, monthly checks and judicial exemptions. The new president, not surprisingly, did not see it that way. He proceeded into the azaar and tried to reorganize it along rational lines, a futile approach which soon obliterated his good intentions. Perhaps the next president will strike more boldly, knocking over tents and tables, driving away the rug merchants and money changers. Perhaps, but I doubt it.

After 40 years of modern liberalism, nobody expects that Americans could go cold turkey. Anyway, I think the ideologues are going to discover that the true soul of the Reagan movement and the Republican Party does not seriously propose to find out. After all the arguments are made, I expect the "accommodationists" will triumph and the list of painful cuts will be rather lopsided, protecting predictable Republican clients in the great bazaar and hurting others.

I hope I am wrong. The conservative critique has been building the strength of its argument for 20 years now and it would be a shame for creative democracy if conservatives now evade the opportunity to actually do what they have been telling us America wants and needs. It would be marvelously clarifying to find out who does support liberalism and who doesn't. I don't believe the conservative ideology will be given another chance.

For while conservatives seems to have won everything in the 1980 tidal wave, the White House and the Senate and perhaps effective control of the House, they lost something important too. They lost their excuses.