An Outlook article last Sunday misstated a position of the Senate Armed Services Committee and its staff. The committee last year recommended in its fiscal 1986 defense authorization bill that full funding continue for both the Air Force and Navy versions of a communications system known as JTIDS. The House-Senate conference on the bill did not request any additional outside studies of the JTIDS issue.

THE DEMOCRATIC Party has been staging its quadrennial identity crisis right on schedule this year, but with an unDemocratic new wrinkle. This time around, the Democrats are being oddly well-mannered.

The problem, halfway to 1988, is that they aren't fighting with each other because they are talking past each other. They haven't figured out where they want to go as a party; their consensus extends only to a common belief that infighting won't get them there.

There are no big intramural spats. Comity is king. The reigning symbol of 1986 for the Democrats is the midterm convention they chose not to hold; Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. cancelled it because he figured it might be a "place for mischief."

Instead, the party has been changing its rules and drafting policy pronunciamentos -- in years past, these have been matters for great thrashing over -- through workmanlike party councils whose members seem to show up with little to barter besides pleasantries.

"This is the first Democratic meeting I've ever had anything to do with where there haven't been any arguments," Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young marveled at last week's final plenary session of the Democratic Policy Commission, a group of 100 elected officials that is writing a policy document for candidates to use in 1986 and 1988.

It's a tidy tableau. But it's also a mirage.

All the big questions -- should the party move left or right, present itself as a party of grievance or a party of government -- lie ahead. From all appearances, they won't be joined until the presidential candidates take control of the debate in late 1987 and early 1988. The institution that might vet such questions beforehand, the DNC, has under Kirk made it clear it's not in the vetting business.

For now, there are what might loosely be described as three Democratic parties, of which the capital "P" party -- the DNC itself -- may wind up having the least to say about which Democratic messages and themes take hold for 1988.

On the left, there are the new Jessecrats: the blacks, farmers, labor unionists, populists and peace activists who in the past month have broken a long, troubled post-1984 quiescence to start publicly exploring whether they might knit themselves into a national constituency of discontent. It's not clear if they can (history argues against the notion), or if Jesse Jackson can consolidate his place as their leader.

But it is clear there is a vein of hurt and a streak of outsidership within all these groups that no national Democrat except Jackson is mining. Say this for Jackson: He knows what to do with a vacuum. In the first half of 1986, he has had more substantive, nuts-and-bolts conversations with labor, farm, peace and consumer group leaders than he did during his whole 1984 presidential bid.

"There is a serious getting-to-know-you process going on between Jesse and liberals," said Ann Lewis, executive director of the Americans for Democratic Action. However it turns out, Jackson seems poised to play a larger, not smaller, role in party affairs between now and 1988. To those who see him as a stumbling block on the party's path toward moderation, that's not welcome news.

On the right, there is the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of mostly Southern and Western elected officals who banded together after the wreckage of the 1984 campaign. Their purpose is to move the party to "the center," and, along the way, to build a safehouse for themselves in case the party proves unbudgeable.

Lots of critics thought the DLC was merely the backlash from a lost DNC chairmanship battle, and would be short-lived. But a year later, it keeps getting bigger and stronger, not least because five of its members -- Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), former Virginia governor Charles S. Robb, Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt and Sens. Sam Nunn (Ga.) and Joseph Biden (Del.) -- are thought to have designs on the 1988 presidential ticket. That gives them a certain cachet.

This spring, Robb, who just succeeded Gephardt as DLC chairman, delivered three speeches in quick succession that have also given the DLC a much sharper edge in the public policy debate.

Robb zeroed in on all sorts of party orthodoxies: He talked of tying Social Security COLA increases to recipients' need; he proposed reducing the program's payroll deduction for low-wage earners; he called for military aid to the contras in Nicaragua; he criticized welfare programs that foster dependence and called on recipients to bear more responsibility for changing their life circumstances, and he has urged the creation of a mandatory national service, civilian and military. (Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, who is not a member of the group, issued a similar call for a national service last year).

In the middle is the DNC itself, whose policy commission has been staying away from ideology and serving up a vision of the Democrats as the party of practical problem solvers. No one says so explicitly, but they're trying to remove the stain the Carter administration left on public perception of Democrats' ability to govern. Their method is to spotlight Democratic "success stories" at the state and local level. Can that add up to a new national party image? Probably not.

Much of what goes on in governors' and mayors' offices is non-partisan and ideologically neutral. On the other hand, the mere instinct to focus on pragmatism over ideology may be doing the party some good.

"Paul Kirk is presiding over the de-elitification and the de-fringification of the Democratic Party," said GOP strategist Kevin Phillips, approvingly noting Kirk's efforts to lower the profile of issue groups within the party.

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a presidential possiblitity, likewise thinks the party can get well without major surgery. "You don't need new slogans. You don't need new philosophies. That's baloney. What you need," Cuomo told a CBS Morning News interviewer the other day, "is competence."

Still, parties that lose four presidential elections out of five have a way of keeping on the lookout for elixirs. Last year, the Democrats latched onto the trade issue and and wrote hundreds of bills in Congress. Most died, one was vetoed by President Reagan, and Democrats themselves began to lose enthusiasm for many others out of fear they would be tagged as the party of protectionism. There will be another go-round on trade in Congress this year, but for the moment, in all but a few heavily impacted areas, trade is not an issue with a sharp partisan edge to it.

More recently, Democrats have begun to focus on what they like to call "family economic issues," and they use them as a metaphor for the positive role that government can play in people's lives.

When Republicans talk about promoting family values, they mean school prayer or tuition tax credits. When Democrats talk about helping families, they mean day care, Head Start, portable pensions, college loans and a welter of programs to help financially pinched young families and their children. (Republicans have made their greatest gains of the Reagan era among young adults. Democrats believe they can recapture the allegiance of young adult with a set of social programs targeted to their needs.)

In the area of defense policy, Democrats have been trying to give their image a harder edge. Nunn and Rep. Les Aspin (Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, are firmly established as their party's leading defense spokesmen. They argue the nation hasn't gotten its money's worth from the Reagan administration's trillion-dollar defense buildup, a point Hart has also been making for years and argues anew in his just-published book on the military. Even though the polls show support for military spending has fallen precipitously over the course of the Reagan Era, not many Democrats are calling for real spending cuts.

In foreign affairs, the party's search for consensus has proven more elusive. Here is the one area where there have been intramural spats. Last month Rep. Stephen Solarz (N.Y.) produced the draft of a foreign policy paper for the policy commission; it was roundly criticized by some hawks on his task force for engaging in too much Reagan-bashing.

The Solarz draft, now being rewritten, tries to walk a line between between isolationism and internationalism. All Democrats try to do the same; their problem is that they often can't agree on specifics after they have mouthed the rhetoric. Consider, for example, foreign policy speeches that Robb and Biden delivered on different days to different Democratic audiences this past week.

Robb: "The new strain of isolationism which has so influenced our party has proved to be a serious liability for Democrats."

Biden: "We as a party have not publicly thrown off the neo-isolationist mantle the Republicans have attempted to place on our shoulders . . . . "

Having defined the problem in nearly identical phrases, Robb and Biden then parted company on one small detail. Robb said he would have voted in favor of aid to the contras; Biden voted against.

But in foreign policy as well on military spending, the poll numbers are comforting to the party's left. President Reagan, despite frequent use of his bully pulpit, has not moved public opinion away from its opposition to contra military aid.

Indeed, in a detailed review of public opinion data on defense spending, social programs, and domestic spending during the Reagan era, Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers write in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly: "With the exception of the rise in support for increased military spending in the late 1970s , which was rapidly reversed, there is little or nothing in the public opinion data to support the claim that the American public moved to the right in the years preceding Reagan's 1980 victory. If American public opinion drifted anywhere over Reagan's first term, it was to the left."

All of which has some in the party's left saying those trying to move the party to the right are engaged in a monumental exercise in bad timing. "If after 1964 the Republicans all got in a room and said, 'Okay, the word conservative doesn't fly and we've got to find a candidate who sounds just like Lyndon Johnson,' they would have never won another election," said the ADA's Lewis.

The liberals, however, also understand they are notorious as the party that unleashed inflation, and most realize Democrats cannot go back to old formulas without peril.

On the other hand, there are daunting pockets of recession throughout the country -- in farming, oil, mining, timber and steel, to name a few. This dichotomy between have-not regions and the rest of the nation is stark, and Democrats instinctively have always known what to do with that kind of issue. "Sure we got a boom, but a boom for whom?" asks Jim Hightower, the Texas agriculture commissioner and self-styled populist.

So 1986 is shaping up as a year when, for lack of consensus, Democrats will play on regional anger and fear -- probably their best strategy anyway. It will be a fall full of "Send 'em a Message" slogans on the Democratic bumperstrips.

That kind of campaign does best in off-years, when voters tend to look backward more than they look forward. The Democrats are still left needing something different for 1988. So far, they haven't figured out what.