In olden times, in some circles, it was considered a sign of good breeding for women, when excited, to act faint and flurried and succumb to what were called "the vapors." The Democratic Party, "responding" on all three networks to the State of the Union address, had a highly operatic attack of the vapors.

Of course, the response was nothing of the sort. Democrats advertise themselves, fortissimo, as consumerists, so you might expect them to be scrupulous about truthfully labeling their own products. But their response was a movie--a sort of "Son of 'Ordinary People'"--ginned up before Reagan spoke. The networks tamely went along.

The Democrats' cin,ema-not-so-v,erit,e contained one priceless moment that revealed the Democrats' problem. A senator indicted Reagan because there were more bankruptcies in 1981 than in any year since 1933. Well, now: 1933 was the first year of another president's term. Are Democrats who say the economic difficulties of Reagan's first year are Reagan's fault also prepared to say that the difficulties of FDR's first year were FDR's, not Hoover's fault?

The Democrats' problem is that the public knows that the economy did not suddenly get out of kilter when Reagan replaced Carter, whose name was not even whispered in the Democrats' movie. Reagan probably knows that the public thinks his argument--that the Democrats did it (made a mess of things)--is valid, but has an expiration date. It expires in the third or fourth quarter of this year, after the next phase of the tax cut goes into effect.

Meanwhile, the economic program being in place, there is little the administration can do except whistle a happy tune, trying to make people feel better and act more optimistically while the plan does its stuff. The "New Federalism" idea--swapping responsibilities with the states, giving them many welfare responsibilities and taking on Medicaid--will not quickly alter governmental arrangements. But it has immediately opened a third front (the first two were rearmament and federal tax and budget cuts) in the campaign for comprehensive Reaganism.

When push comes to shove (and there will be plenty of pushing and shoving in the tussle to shape the final formula for the swap), considerations of abstract principles will yield to considerations of concrete interests. Senators' and representatives' decisions about whether to support the plan are apt to be determined by printouts--by what government computers reveal about which states and districts will gain or lose, immediately.

But the initial response to the "New Federalism" idea must be what Reagan hoped it would be. There is division (primarily although not entirely) along party lines. So it is apt to seem to the public that Democrats have taken time-out from their vaunted search for "new ideas" and are back defending the dominance of the federal government. That is a defensible idea, but hardly new. Republicans can merrily rattle on about how much finer government is when "close to the people" and how much more "responsive" state and local governments are than wicked Washington.

Never mind that government at all levels is responsive to a fault, or at least too responsive to the wrong forces. The truth is always apt to lose the crease in its trousers as long as a debate is carried on at this level of generality. However, if Democrats can overcome their intellectual inertia, they can make two arguments that are not uninteresting.

One is that if states become responsible for food stamps and Aid for Families with Dependent Children, the result will be intolerable inequalities--intolerable because inequitable, and because they might cause the migration of indigents to generous states. Many liberals argue that justice is fairness, that fairness is equality, and that federal policy should aim to "correct" state and regional "imbalances." Reagan's activist proposal challenges the essential aims of modern liberalism's activist agenda, which has pointed toward an increasingly homogenized national society.

The second argument Democrats can usefully make is this: for various reasons, society's big battalions--compact, organized, intense, articulate interests--are stronger in state capitals than in Washington. Therefore, the most vulnerable groups, such as the poor and the handicapped, fare better when the competition for society's resources centers in Washington.

Neither argument suits the mood of the moment, but such suitability is no test of truth. Both arguments deserve Democratic sponsorship, when--if--Democrats weary of making movies and turn to making arguments.