EVERY ONE, or at least every side in the arms debate, is talking "freeze." The question is when the president will or should try to negotiate a strategic weapons freeze with the Soviets. A Senate- House minority, with a lot of evident public and media support, would have him freeze arms-building now--and then go after weapons cuts. A protective Senate majority would have him build more arms now--and then negotiate both a freeze and cuts. What should he do?

To us, the "freeze now, cut later" approach is misguided. A freeze could check the further buildup of weapons, and it responds to a pervasive feeling that both sides already have more than "enough." But a freeze offers no new key to the manifold challenges of verification, which is essential to the mutual confidence required for any agreement. A freeze could complicate dealing with major, politically significant disparities--with the Soviet missile advantage in Europe, for instance. A freeze might well also aggravate what we regard as the prime existing nuclear danger, the vulnerability of one side's land-based missiles to a first strike by the other-- the problem of crisis stability.

It is true, however, that such considerations do not go to the root anxiety of freeze advocates. They believe that the field has been left too long to people who hide behind mumbo-jumbo, that the result has been an increasingly steep and dangerous arms spiral, and in this they are probably right. They may also be technically correct, as political matter, in arguing that the only way to stop it is to gather public opinion behind a single simple concept and ram it through and that the time for a blunt weapon is at hand.

The answer to these last two questions really rests with Mr. Reagan. Speaking for those of us who believe the freeze-now method carries great dangers and defects, can he offer something better? Can he, in fact, offer anything besides a formula for more arms and more tension. It is his failure to address this question adequately that has him struggling to hold the line on his arms control approach now.

Some part of the rap against the president is unfair. Last fall, he did assemble in one speech the general elements of a responsible arms control policy and he did launch one negotiation, on intermediate nuclear forces in Europe, at Geneva--it chugs along in second gear, awaiting, perhaps, the onset of talks on strategic weapons to go into first. But the rest of the Reagan record is disappointing.

He used his great influence in the campaign period to undermine both SALT II and public support for arms control, only to find that the treaty's terms (by which both sides are evidently voluntarily abiding) serve the American interest and that the public, once confounded, is hard to get back under control.

The president wanted to show Moscow, before going to the table, that he could muster political support for arms-building. But he waited too long. Jimmy Carter took two months to prepare for negotiations--too quick, as it turned out. Ronald Reagan has used up 15 months and concedes he needs at least several more--a span in which his election mandate may dissipate further. The budget is pressing, and people are asking whether he has a strategy or simply a high budget target. His MX proposal has been sidetracked, his civil defense plans, mercifully, ignored. He has yet to organize or inspire--whichever it is--his national security apparatus to come up with a SALT-START negotiating position.

Finally, Mr. Reagan clings to a loose and unpersuasive way of talking about this most serious of subjects. Just last week he declared that Moscow has "a definite margin of superiority," a "great edge" allowing it to "absorb our retaliatory blow and hit us again." These statements lack a firm factual basis, run counter to the considered analyses of the administration's smartest hawks and further undermine the valid position of those trying to work out a better and more responsible approach to arms control than the one now gaining public favor.

Yes--the freeze is the wrong question. But there is a reason the country is debating it now. It is that the president has not done his job. To beat the freeze, Mr. Reagan must put out his best. That means embracing unequivocally his own arms control principles of last fall, taking hold of his national security bureaucracy and keeping his statements on this subject accurate and precise.