AT THE 1984 Republican Convention in Dallas, Jeane Kirkpatrick elated the crowd and dazzled the television audience with her repeated references to the "San Francisco Democrats," those liberals who blamed America for everything from Vietnam to athlete's foot.

Kirkpatrick's catchy phrase and rhetorical flair struck a resonant chord, and not just among rigid ideological conservatives. To many Southern moderates and others for whom patriotism, love of country and reverence of our governing institutions are basic premises, the very notion of Americans going beyond disagreement with policies to criticize the basis of governing in America was going too far. While Kirkpatrick did not originate the charge, her speech proved a catalyst for the Republican Party and an albatross for the Democrats.

That was 1984.

This is 1987, and now we have a new group of Blame America First-ers. Ironically, they include many of the same conservatives who crowed at the blasphemy of the San Francisco Democrats three years ago. Whether it is the deadlock over the deficit or the fallout from the Iran-contra hearings, conservatives are attacking the basic structure and operation of the American system of government with a particular focus of animosity on that most basic and American of our institutions, Congress -- the first branch of government.

Lt. Col. Oliver North is the most recent recruit to the Blame America First Club:

"Our adversaries laugh at us and our friends recoil in horror," he told the congressional Iran-contra committee and the American public a week ago. "The Congress of the United States left soldiers in the field unsupported and vulnerable to their communist enemies. . .you then held this investigation to blame the problem on the executive branch."

Or, here is staunch conservative economist Paul Craig Roberts:

"Instead of looking to Congress for leadership, people increasingly view it as a barrier to the success of the country"; "Reporters who don't report straight and congressmen who can't think straight are the ones who are on trial. The United States no longer stands astride the world like a colossus and cannot afford the pretense that the only enemies the country has are conservatives in the White House"; "Congress has made it all too clear that it is interested in nothing but politics. . .organized vote-buying"; "Contragate is a case of the Congress protecting an enemy government in order to strike at an American president."

Or consider these comments in Newsweek from Pat Buchanan, the chief spokesman of the Blame America First conservatives and the equivalent on the right of Jane Fonda in the days when she visited Hanoi and heaped the blame for the world's problems on America's doorstep:

Congress is guilty of "complicity in permitting the enemies of the United States to consolidate a military beachhead on the mainland of North America." The Boland amendment, duly passed by Congress and accepted by the president, he wrote in The Washington Post last week, "merited contempt" as it "was rooted in the same malevolence that motivated an earlier Congress to disarm and desert to its communist enemies a South Vietnamese army that had fought for seven years alongside our own."

Congress isn't the only all-American institution that merits Buchanan's contempt. In what passes with Buchanan as a respectful paean to the loyal opposition, he wrote in Newsweek that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is "the silent partner -- the indispensable ally -- of revolutionary communism in the Third World . . . . It wants the other side to win." In The Post, he elaborated on this theme, saying, "the dominant wing of the Democratic Party . . . has passively collaborated with Moscow and Managua."

Jeane Kirkpatrick criticized the San Francisco Democrats for blaming America for every injustice around the world, from apartheid in South Africa to poverty in Bangladesh. The new BAF conservatives don't blame America for these sad realities -- instead they blame America for the spread of communism to South Vietnam and Central America and the maintenance of communism in Mozambique and Angola, among other places.

The old liberal Blame-America-First crowd had contempt for the rule of law in American society, typified perhaps by the 1971 May Day demonstration in Washington which its organizers said was intended to shut down the federal government. May Day featured violent incidents and epithets hurled at law enforcement officials.

The new crowd has equal, if different contempt for the process of government and the rule of law. Buchanan writes about the incident (which North described but the Justice Department denied) where "even as Justice Department lawyers were seizing documents in one room, {North} was shredding documents in the next"; Buchanan calls it not a contemptuous act of defiance against law enforcement officials but "a brave and beautiful thing."

In the Vietnam era, BAF liberals urged open defiance of the law if it didn't fit their goals. Now BAF conservative High Priest Buchanan suggests that the president should openly defy the law if Congress refuses to give him everything he wants for the contras and dare lawmakers to impeach him.

This last suggestion by Buchanan frames the first premise of the BAF conservative critique of America: an utter disdain for Congress as the root of all evil in American politics and policy. Conservative columnist Raymond Price indignantly refers to congressional "sapper squads" who presumably infiltrate and destroy American policy from within.

Among the other BAF premises:

In the budget process, Congress has been driven by politics (politics? Wouldn't the framers have been shocked!) into spending us into the ground, ignoring the president's prerogatives in the budget area to a point where radical constitutional surgery is necessary.

In foreign policy, Congress has passed unconstitutional and irrational laws like the Boland amendment, vacillates on contra aid to the point where the country is in peril and forces the president to find ways out of foolish congressional shackles; Congress then engages in a witchhunt to punish the president and his faithful who have been trying to carry out his noble unilateral foreign policies. (See Ollie North above).

Of course, criticizing Congress is as old as America, and is traditionally one of our favorite spectator sports -- as is disagreeing with American policies and the ways we make them. But conservatives bashed the liberal critics of American foreign policy, who also criticized American institutions and policies in the '70s and early '80s, not just because they disagreed with policies or politicians. Rather, it was the tone and sweep of their criticisms -- the self-hatred, the willingness to ignore balance and reason, the refusal to accept the opposition's position as legitimate and within bounds, the eagerness to condemn the system and not just the policy -- that gave bite to the broader characterization, the Blame America First crowd.

The same pattern now infects the conservatives. Consider this characterization of the American people by Buchanan: "Americans of Left and Right no longer share the same religion, the same values, the same codes of morality: We only inhabit the same piece of land." Column after column in The Washington Times and editorial after editorial in The Wall Street Journal criticize Congress with a venom that goes beyond balanced disagreement with policies, to fundamental hatred of the system of checks and balances itself.

The Wall Street Journal, for example, has repeatedly called into question the very legitimacy of the contemporary House of Representatives, arguing (despite the evidence) that it is so explicitly and illicitly gerrymandered to favor the Democrats that it is a house in no way representative. Conservatives like Gordon Crovitz have taken the tack that Congress' involvement in Nicaraguan policy, starting with the Boland Amendment, is illegitimate and unconstitutional; they move beyond that to challenge with vehemence any significant role for our First Branch of Government in foreign policy.

And Paul Craig Roberts, cited above, is one of many conservatives who condemn Congress for the sins of its individual members, so venal, selfish and driven by dirty, crass politics that any decisions they make are at best suspect. (No-holds-barred criticism of Congress is almost invariably accompanied by equally vicious criticism of the press as biased, unpatriotic and government-destroying.)

Attacks on the institutions alone would not be enough to deserve the Blame America First moniker. Conservatives add another characteristic: hatred of American policy outcomes. At the same time that they question the legitimacy of our decision-makers, the Blame America First conservatives condemn the results of their decisions. Thus, BAF conservatives have condemned America's moral decay; weak, vacillating and appeasing foreign policy; overbearing and overregulating bureaucrats; and budget busting, tax-and-spend deficits -- so much so that a visitor from outer space, fed only on their message, would be unable to recognize the strong, confident, affluent and vibrant America that really exists. If you believed the new Blame America First crowd, you would think the country was a combination of Sodom and Gomorrah, Neville Chamberlain's Britain, pre-Gorbachev Russia and the last days of the Roman Empire.

Conservative assaults on America, cloaked in self-righteous patriotism, are themselves nothing new. Many staunch conservatives have been dismayed by the course of the country since the New Deal; vehement condemnation of American policies and the direction of American society have been watchwords ever since. During the heyday of the San Francisco Democrats, conservatives were so busy condemning American military weakness and foreign policy spinelessness that one was afraid the Soviet Union would take their message seriously.

But although rightfully chastising liberals for blaming America, conservatives were getting away with it themselves. Undoubtedly, the vehemence of the rightists' attacks reflects some frustration over their inability -- as a direct result of the American system of checks and balances -- to get their way on many foreign, domestic and social policies through six years of a conservative in the White House and a Republican Senate.

As their volume of complaints has multiplied, they ought not to be able to get away with it unscathed any more. They ought to be reminded how much they sound like the San Francisco Democrats they condemned. In the constitutional bicentennial year, BAF conservatives' rewriting of the Constitution -- pretending that Article I was a throwaway, or denying a major legitimate role for Congress in foreign or domestic policy, or trying to delegitimize Congress itself to justify their own policy positions -- is both unseemly and ultimately dangerous. It is unseemly because it takes policy disagreement outside the realm of legitimate, political differences in domestic, defense and foreign policy priorities and diverts it to the wrong level of a false constitutional crisis that can only weaken our fundamental hold on our unique governmental system.

It is dangerous because it can accelerate the call for sweeping constitutional change that could alter our basic system -- a system that is founded on the checks and balances and the aggressive congressional role that BAF conservatives so emotionally condemn. Our system has shown the strength, tolerance and flexibility to easily withstand such attacks in the past. But the system can rest a little bit easier if we hang this kind of rhetorical excess and rampant hypocrisy out to be ridiculed.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.