In August 1981, when air traffic controllers began their illegal strike and the government announced they would be fired if they did not return to work in a few days, a journalist called a White House lawyer to ask, "Why a few days -- why the delay?" The lawyer laughed: "That's what the president wanted to know."

That was a defining moment for persons curious about the nature of Ronald Reagan's appeal to the electorate. Hamlet he isn't.

Reagan's action regarding PATCO flowed from experiences with assistant professors who told their students in the '60s that students could violate laws if they did so sincerely. In a sense, the '60s ended in August 1981, buried by a man whose political career owes much to Berkeley students and their faculty misleaders.

This election comes 20 years -- almost to the month -- after the birth of the so-called "free speech movement" at the University of California at Berkeley. If this election produces the first increase since 1960 in the percentage of Americans voting, that will be a tribute to Reagan. He has refuted a familiar tenet of American radicalism, the theory that election contests between our temperate parties do not matter.

Reagan has not been as radical as his rhetoric sometimes suggests or as Mondale insists. However, his most important achievement -- the shift of federal resources toward the military -- is so substantial that, measured against the achievements of other presidents, it places him among the most consequential presidents.

Mondale tried to make much of the "unfairness" of Reagan's consequences, and failed. He seemed to measure the fairness of American society solely in terms of the domestic side of the federal budget, and the incidence of taxation. This strengthened the public's perception of him as too fixated on government.

Anyway, in 1980 domestic spending measured in today's dollars was $523.4 billion. This year it is $523 billion. Reasonable people can differ about the equity of spending patterns under Reagan. But it is unreasonable to imply, as Mondale did, that since 1980 the domestic budget has become something Charles Dickens might have dreamed up to torment Oliver Twist.

Regarding taxation, reasonable persons can differ about the equities of the system as modified by Reagan's cuts. But it is unreasonable to suggest that Reagan has seriously undermined the essential progressivity of the system. Today the top 10 percent of taxpayers account for 50 percent of tax revenues, and the bottom 50 percent pay just 10 percent.

So, part of Mondale's problem was that Reagan has not been radical. But the Democratic Party also has a problem that should be called its "peculiarity quotient."

Daniel Seligman, who collects evidence of social insanity (for his "Keeping Up" column in Fortune magazine), asks an interesting question. New York's police department has an affirmative action program to recruit homosexuals because (according to the notice posted in gay bars) police officers must be "representative of the community they work to serve." Seligman wonders: how will the community know the sexual orientation of the person on the beat?

Backward reels the mind to the San Francisco Democratic convention, and its rules committee. Lord, how Democrats love rules. Prof. Grant Gilmore of the Yale Law School writes: "In heaven there will be no law, and the lion will lie down with the lamb. . . . In hell there will be nothing but law, and due process will be meticulously observed."

The Democrats' rules committee endorsed creation of a Fairness Commission to fine-tune the party's rules "as they relate to the full participation in the party process of . . . (all) members of the Rainbow Coalition." The rules committee stipulated:

"The commission shall consist of at least 50 members equally divided between men and women, and shall include fair and equitable participation of Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian-Pacifics, women and persons of all sexual preference consistent with their proportional representation in the party."

Now, tiptoeing, as delicacy requires us to do, past the awkward question of what the word "all" encompasses, we come to this question: who is to decree, and on the basis of what research, what is the homosexual portion of the Democratic Party?

Few voters know that Democrats, in solemn assembly, do things like this. If voters knew, Democratic candidates would suffer even worse electoral rebukes. Nevertheless, by Tuesday evening the Democratic Party will have lost four of the last five presidential elections. It would be rash for Democrats to assume that this has nothing to do with the fact that the party is, as the work of the rules committee suggests, a bit too peculiar for comfort.