In the fall of 1980, I was speaking to a town meeting in Wisconsin when a gentleman stood up and said we should double the defense budget right away. It was the middle of the Iranian hostage episode, and the Russians had recently invaded Afghanistan. I responded that there were indeed areas of our defense program where spending ought to be raised, but that I felt doubling the entire defense budget would be overreacting.

The man in the audience said, "That's the trouble with you guys. Some people want to increase it here, some want to increase it there, and the end result is that nothing happens. So the best thing is just to double the whole defense budget." I looked around the room at row upon row of heads nodding agreement.

This ast spring, I was back speaking in the same town. Thirty months had passed. Our hostages had been released, but the Soviets were still in Afghanistan. Our defense budget in the meantime had been increased by about a third over and above inflation. A gentleman in the audience stood up--I don't believe the same one--and remarked that the economy was in terrible shape and the thing to do was to halve the defense budget. I replied that defense spending increases were indeed excessive, but pointed to some Soviet military initiatives that I felt needed a response, while listing areas where I thought we could make cuts.

The man replied in effect, "That's the trouble with you guys. Some want to cut here, some want to cut there, and the end result is that nothing happens. So the best thing is just to chop the defense budget in half." I looked around the room at rows of heads bobbing in agreement.

Public opinion can, of course, shift dramatically on any topic. But defense is the area where it shifts almost as a matter of course. The cyclical nature of opinion is reflected in the ups and downs of defense budgeting and the erratic shifts in defense planning. Those of us who labor in the jumbled vineyards of defense policy long for a consensus that will hold for more than a few years. By definition, that requires some compromise among opinion makers.

The Scowcroft Commission report was an effort to reach a compromise in one major area of defense planning--land-based missile systems. It provided a response to what the Soviets had done with their land-based arsenal--namely, deployed 600-plus "MXs" (the SS18 and SS19) over the last decade. Both the Ford and Carter administrations sought to get the Russians to reduce the number of those missiles, but to no avail.

The SS18 and SS19 contain everything that makes for instability in the arms business: they are very accurate; they carry lots of warheads; they clearly have one purpose, which is to threaten to take out our missile silos in a first strike.

Over the years all efforts to deal with this threat failed repeatedly. The MX was to be the response, but we couldn't reach agreement on where to base it. We've been through 34 different basing modes. Each one either offended large numbers of people, like the folks in Nevada and Utah who didn't like the racetrack idea in their states, or failed the test of invulnerability, as did the Densepack plan.

The result was that Congress could always muster a majority to kill funds for a particular basing mode. But there was never a majority to kill the MX. On the same day a basing mode would get the ax, Congress would usually vote billions to continue research and development on the missile itself. That satisfied the age-old desire of politicians to place themselves firmly on both sides of an issue, but left the country at an impasse.

The three-part Scowcroft package was an effort to break this logjam by offering liberals and conservatives something each wanted. The conservatives got the MX--but only 100 of them, not enough to pose the threat of a disabling first strike, not enough to be anathema to liberals. Liberals got proes of changes in the administration's arms control approach--and liberals will have two opportunities each yearX funds in the annual defense authorization and appropriations bills) to judge whether the Reagan administratih on its promises.

In the third part of the package, liberals got a commitment from the administration to shift away from multiad MIRVed missiles by beginning work on a small, single-warhead weapon. In agreeing to back the single-warheadReagan has done more to stabilize the dangerous arms race than even he ever expected!

Those of us who helpe compromise often compared it to the Social Security compromise. There was something in it for everybody, and everybody had to swallow something he or she didn't like. Buackage held together--not just in political terms, but in defense and arms control terms as well.

In the Scowcroft package, the s to encourage the Soviets to negotiate on their big, land-based missiles. It is not a bargaining chip in the ning chip means a weapon funded for bargaining purposes only. MX could be deployed or negotiated.

If it were deployed, it would encourage the Soviets to move away from their "MX (SS18s and SS19s) by partially threatening those systems. But it could be part of a settlement to reduce those systems,ted either by Ronald Reagan or by the president elected in 1984 or in 1988, since the MX will not begin to be deployed before the end of 1986 and by the 1988 elions there will be fewer than 60 in the ground.

In sum, the hope was that the MX would induce the Russians to negotiate over debilizing giant silo-killers and that it would encourage them to conclude that a mutual shift to single-warhead missiles was in their self-interest.

In a recent letter brought ouiet Union, Andrei Sakharov, the physicist who helped develop the Soviet H-bomb, backed deployment of the MX foreason. "While the U.S.S.R. is the leader in this field," he wrote, "there is very little chance of its easily relinquishing that lead. If icessary to spend a few billion dollars on MX missiles to alter this situation, then perhaps this is what the West must do."

With the succthe Social Security compromise, the Scowcroft approach looked like an attractive way out of the land-based missile impasse. The Scowcroft pan approval in the House on a 239-186 vote in May.

But all that could be undone when the next MX vote comes number of Democratic House members who supported the MX in May have since come under intense pressure. Some have faced radio ads in their districts challenging their posin. Anti-MX lobbying groups have been out in force. Letters have been pouring in. One senior member of the Democratic leadership told me the level of emotion withe House Democratic Caucus on this issue was the highest he had ever seen--even higher than over the Vietnam War. There is no doubt that the next vote will show a drop in MX support. It may not even eke out a bare majorit's gone awry? Why is the compromise in trouble?

First, we calculated that the public had wearied of the MX hassle and would welcome a compromise. But it turned out that the traditional opposition to the MX still had a lot of fight left. Essentially, opponents found two things wrong with the MX compromise.

For one thing, they didn't think it was a compromey thought we had given the White House the family jewels and gotten an empty handshake in return. They felt a compromise should not contain any MXs at all. The opposition is so fervent that it opposed not only deployment of a sufficient number of missiles to threaten a first strike, but deployment of even onSecond, President Reagan embraced the compromise so tightly that it became identified as his proposal. When the package was being put together by the Scowcroft Commission members, re was great concern that it might be rejected by the White House. A great deal of effort went into schmoozing the White House. It is now apparent that the White House co that the Scowcroft approach was the last chance to break the logjam. It therefore made a commitment to fight fiercely for the package, and not to hold its nose or express reservatbout any of its parts.

The Scowcroft report actually knocked the props out from under years of Reagan rhetoric by dismissing the "window lity" as so much pap. But the Reagan people chose not to endanger the compromise by arguing the point. This dek up a lot of moderate Republican votes. But on the Democratic side, it has left the impression that it is a Republican proposal.

Third, an attack from the right-wing never materialized. We knew the Left wouldn't like even 100 MXs. We were counting on the Right to be mad about not closing the wi of vulnerability and to complain that 100 MXs and maybe a small missile a decade from now was a sop. As the weeks passed, the Right was silent. Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie: you when we really need you?

It's now apparent that the right-wing fringe has gotten itself so involved witl agenda-- school prayer, abortion amendments and the like --that it has bowed out of defense issues this year. l to attack the Scowcroft report, but it also sat silently by as Congress cut the Reagan defense budget increase in half.

The result was that we have not yet achieved al compromise--and still do not have one on the land-based missile issue. That was clear after the May vote whee MX was approved, House Democrats still voted 3-to-1 against it.

Another MX vote is due this week. Unfortut vote public opinion has diverged, rather than converged. Opponents of the missile say they are going to win.ly pushing the Bennett-Mavroules amendment which--yes, you guessed it--deletes the production money and leaves isearch and development.

We may soon find ourselves back where we started. The MX opponents may have the votes to stop deployment, but they are far from united on any other solution. They ly divided on the wisdom of the small, single-warhead missile, for example, and they certainly do not have the votes to kill MX entirely--tha to knock out the $2 billion in research and development money in the bill. If the opponents take out the MX money, others will certainly lointerest in the small, single-warhead missile and the new arms control approach.

The result is the prospect of a new impasse: no majority in favor of any MX basing modajority in favor of an alternative to the MX, and no majority in favor of killing the MX. In other words, more money will be spent, but no missiles will be deployed.

What's moreter the expenditure of billions of dollars--not to mention billions of words-- we may be right back staring at the same question we began witht are we going to do about land-based missiles?

Our inability to decide this issue might be funny if it did not lead to two serious questions: How do we get the Soviets to negotiateriously about their ICBMs if we can't make a decision about ours? How do we get the Europeans to face up to their difficult weapons deployment decisions if we can't face up to ours?