ATTORNEY GENERAL Edwin Meese III is one of the few members of President Reagan's second administration with a clearly defined ideological agenda. And when Meese and his minions present their case, it's hard to argue with them. After all, no one wants to be in favor of discriminatory racial quotas, pornography-inspired violence or harassment of private citizens in the name of gun control.

On the surface, at least, Meese's Justice Department seems to be crusading against practices that most would agree are evil. But on issue after issue, Meese and company have displayed a remarkable flair for setting up straw men and vigorously knocking them down.

More often than not, critics suggest, the current crew at Justice is really carrying water for outside interests, lending credibility to their self-serving arguments by giving them the government's stamp of approval.

The Meese Justice Department hardly holds a monopoly on this age-old tactic, which politicians, lobbyists and self-styled experts have made a permanent feature of the Washington landscape. But it has helped to obscure the national debate on these sensitive social issues.

The department's approach was demonstrated earlier this year as the administration, at the behest of the National Rifle Association, pushed a sweeping gun decontrol measure through Congress. Meese stood firmly behind the NRA's campaign to legalize interstate sales and transportation of handguns, ease rules for gun dealers and otherwise weaken the 1968 Gun Control Act.

The rationale for the McClure-Volkmer law was that the federal bureaucracy had been running amok in regulating firearms. Meese, while still in the White House, embraced this line in a 1982 letter to Congress, saying that federal gun agents "have misused their authority to search for minor technical infractions by otherwise law-abiding sportsmen, collectors and dealers."

The evidence for this argument turns out to be a handful of horror stories about alleged overzealousness by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) during the Carter administration, tales that the NRA trumpeted at a couple of congressional hearings in the late 1970s.

But even if those stories about harassed gun collectors were true, Ronald Reagan has been running the government for the last 5 1/2 years. Why not simply call off the BATF dogs if they had gotten rabid?

Well, as both Justice Department officials and the NRA admit, that's exactly what the White House has done. Stephen E. Higgins, Reagan's director of BATF, says he has received almost no complaints about overzealous gun enforcement. Although the NRA bill proposed to ban surprise inspections by his agency, Higgins said such inspections were dropped three years ago, except in criminal investigations. And while the legislation sought to limit inspections to one a year, Higgins says the Treasury Department agency has only enough agents to inspect the average dealer once every 25 years.

The reason the changes were needed, Justice Department officials say privately, is that the administration wants to carve these policies into legislative stone so they can't be erased by a future (read liberal) president. That explanation hardly makes for an exciting rallying cry, but getting the law changed neatly advances the NRA's private agenda.

"These were primarily things that happened from 1977 to '80," NRA spokesman Andrew Kendzie said at the time. "If you've got the same bad law on the books and you don't change it, under another administration the same damn thing can happen . . . . If a Ted Kennedy administration came to town, you could go right back to the way it was three or four years ago."

Still, the NRA insisted in magazine ads: "Testimony by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms before numerous Senate hearings showed 75 percent of the cases were filed against law-abiding citizens."

Reagan's own BATF says the facts are just the opposite: Three-quarters of their gun cases involve criminal charges. The NRA ad refers to 1979 testimony by Vernon D. Acree, a former Customs Service commissioner who a) never worked for BATF, b) was giving his estimate for parts of Maryland and Virginia, and c) was a paid NRA consultant at the time. Even Acree now says his testimony was misrepresented.

Attorney General Meese never repudiated these arguments, even when he came under pressure from his natural allies, the nation's police groups, who bitterly opposed the McClure-Volkmer measure and were profoundly disappointed in Meese's stance. Meese, a former California prosecutor, privately expressed his concern that parts of the bill went too far -- such as a loophole that might have allowed fleeing felons to plead self-defense; but he never publicly strayed from the NRA view that the measure was needed to combat federal harassment. Instead, he provided the political cover for Congress to pass a bill that law-enforcement leaders say makes life harder for them and easier for armed criminals.

Plenty of room exists for disagreement in the emotional battle over affirmative action. But again, Meese has set up a straw man -- that the government is using illegal "quotas" to enforce the law -- despite contrary evidence from the Reagan administration's own Department of Labor.

For 21 years, the Labor Department has promoted minority hiring by federal contractors under an executive order issued by Lyndon Johnson. This program has gained widespread acceptance in the business community. It involves the use of hiring "goals and timetables" to increase minority and female employment among corporations, universities and other places that do business with the federal government.

Some companies, particularly in the construction industry, despise the program, and they took their complaints to Meese and his civil rights chief, William Bradford Reynolds. The result was a concerted attempt by Meese and Reynolds to gut the executive order and abolish hiring goals as illegal quotas in disguise. That attempt has been stalled for nearly a year because of opposition in Congress and the Cabinet.

Meese repeatedly declared that there was "a litany of cases" that show Labor Department bureaucrats impose rigid quotas on otherwise law-abiding companies. Reagan's labor secretary, William Brock, moved quickly to rebut Meese's charge. The hiring goals are flexible targets, Brock said, and companies that fail to meet them simply must promise a good-faith effort to do better.

Since Reagan took office, the Labor Department has used the ultimate sanction of cutting off a company's federal contracts only twice. What's more, Labor officials pointed to a long list of companies, from Monsanto to Merck, that had embraced the program as workable and effective.

Justice Department officials were able to come up with the name of exactly one opponent: a Lenexa, Kan., highway contractor who said he employed only two truck drivers and that Labor had insisted he hire a black and a woman. But Meese and Reynolds continued to flail away at the straw-man quota issue. Months after reporters pressed to see Meese's "litany," Reynolds called a news conference to unveil a three-inch stack of documents that purported to show the Labor Department's quota police in action.

Reynolds said the cases proved that "a right number for every race and gender. . . has to be achieved in order to do business with the government." But Labor officials called it a pretty flimsy indictment of a program that has handled 5,000 cases since 1981.

A quick review showed that more than half the 20 cases took place in 1981 and 1982. A few involved questionable tactics, such as directing companies to contact minority applicants before anyone else, but most were ambiguous. All the names were blacked out except for the Kansas contractor who, despite his failure to meet the goals, was not barred from receiving government contracts.

Something else was peculiar about the cases; nearly all seemed to involve the construction industry. Reynolds acknowledged that most of the cases were given to Justice by the construction industry and that a number came from Associated General Contractors, a leading supporter of his campaign to change the executive order.

Once again, Justice appeared to be going to bat for an outside lobby by attacking a supposedly evil federal program, only to have its allegations flatly disputed by those in charge. In the same vein, Meese likes to portray himself as the true champion of affirmative action -- as narrowly defined by him to mean recruitment and "outreach" for minorities -- and criticizes civil rights groups as favoring discriminatory preferential treatment.

These groups, Meese said recently, "don't really believe in civil rights for everybody. They like discrimination." In other words, Meese seems to be saying, those liberals whom he loves to attack are not only wrong, but their motives are impure and they don't believe in the American way, either.

The most recent example of straw-man politics comes to us courtesy of the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography. Although Meese cannot be blamed for all the bizarre actions of an independent commission, he appointed the panel, stacked it with anti-pornography activists, personally unveiled its work at a packed news conference and has done nothing to distance the Justice Department from the commission's antics.

In this case, the administration was throwing a bone to the right-wing zealots for whom an anti-smut assault ranks high on the social agenda. But the panel's crusade quickly became as controversial as the issue it was created to address.

The 11-member commission, chaired by Henry E. Hudson, now the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, had an intractable problem. In order to make its sweeping recommendations on restricting pornography, it had to demonstrate that pornography was a public menace. Lacking hard evidence to prove the point, the commissioners had to fall back on personal value judgments of the sort that have long defied consensus in this difficult field. They could not even agree on defining categories of pornography. Some considered homosexuality offensive; others found depictions of oral sex and other heterosexual activities degrading; some found harm in such magazines as Playboy and Penthouse.

Faced with this intellectual muddle, a majority of commissioners settled for a simple but potentially popular argument: pornography causes sexual violence. To give their findings a scientific gloss, they cited social science research of the sort that measures the attitudes of college men after exposure to X-rated films. But several of the researchers involved said the commission had misrepresented their work, which measured only attitudes, not actual behavior; and that violent, R-rated "slasher" films were more likely to be linked to increased aggression than nonviolent films featuring explicit sex.

Hudson acknowledged that the panel's findings about violence rested on what his report calls "assumptions not found exclusively in the experimental evidence." He said these assumptions included uncorroborated testimony, plain old "common sense" and each commissioner's "ethical and cultural values," whatever that means.

This time the Meese commission set up the straw man -- the pornography-causes-violence argument -- and dared others to knock it down. That may be impossible, since one can't conduct real rape experiments with live human beings, and since the panel never clearly defined which kinds of obscene materials it was talking about. Meese repeatedly declined to comment on the pornography report at a news conference, saying he hadn't read it. But it certainly will be cited as authoritative in any future Justice Department crackdown on pornography.

You may have noticed that, aside from a bit of political hype, we don't hear these kinds of straw-man debates in such traditional law-enforcement areas as drug trafficking, defense contracting fraud, insider trading and organized crime. That's because it's easier to measure success and failure in these areas, and if the Justice Department wants to indict someone, it's got to come up with some facts that will stand up in court.

There is no such burden of proof, apparently, when it comes to furthering the social agenda. There may well be a strong, substantive case to be made against stringent gun control laws, sweeping affirmative action programs and uncontrolled distribution of pornography. But the Justice Department has been content to train its fire on exaggerated evils.

Howard Kurtz covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post.