On balance and while it lasted, the Wright-Reagan peace plan for Central America was a good one. In return for President Reagan's promise to give peace a chance -- and, just to be sure, in return for a gag rule against Reagan's speaking out on contra aid for 60 days -- House Speaker Jim Wright made a significant concession. Orthodox Democratic policy calls, at most, for containment of the Sandinistas, not for changing the Marxist-Leninist nature of their regime. The Wright-Reagan plan, however, called for a cease-fire and the simultaneous democratization of Nicaragua.

In return for signing on to the Reagan Doctrine of rolling back rather than containing communism in Soviet Third World clients, Wright obtained Reagan's commitment to the notion of "withdrawal of foreign military personnel" from Central America. That puts the American presence in Central America on a moral par with that of Cuba and the Soviet Union. No matter. Such is the price of bipartisanship. If renunciation of the Monroe Doctrine is what it takes to acquire Democratic support for democracy in Nicaragua, so be it.

Or so was it on Wednesday. By Friday, Wright had moved on to other things. In the process, he set a new indoor record for fastest abandonment of one's own peace plan: 48 hours. Wright announced Friday, Aug. 7, that his plan had been superseded by that proposed by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and signed on that day by the five Central American presidents.

The problem for Wright, and for the United States, is that the Arias plan utterly defeats Wright-Reagan. Its only concrete, loophole-free provision is the cutoff of U.S. aid to the contras within 90 days. The call for democratization, to borrow a phrase from Edward Kennedy, is a sham. Under Wright-Reagan, procedures for free elections must be in place at the time of the cease-fire. Under Arias, there are to be elections next year -- for a powerless Central American parliament. Elections within countries, says Arias, will have to follow current constitutional timetables. In Nicaragua that timetable, like everything else having to do with real power, was established by the Sandinista government and conveniently keeps Daniel Ortega in power until 1990. By then the contras will have been dead three years, and free elections will be a less pressing matter for Managua.

As for foreign forces, the Arias plan goes repeal of the Monroe Doctrine one better. The United States must cut off aid to the contras; the Soviets and Cuba may continue to aid the Sandinistas. The moral asymmetry between American and Soviet forces in Central America is reestablished -- except that now the American presence is deemed illegitimate. In theory, Soviet bloc aid to the Salvadoran guerrillas would be prohibited too. We eagerly await the Supreme Soviet's passage of the Boland Amendment.

Both plans call for cease-fire. Wright-Reagan calls for a cease-fire in place. What does the Arias cease-fire call mean? In a speech immediately upon returning home from the summit in Guatemala City, Ortega explained. It means "that those who are armed and are in the counterrevolution have the chance to give up their arms and enjoy all the guarantees of their security and life and civil rights." Cease-fire in Nicaragua means offering the contras the right of surrender.

Wright has chosen to overlook such unpleasantness. He has assurances. A promise of free elections from Nicaraguan Vice President Ramirez. A promise from Nicaragua's U.S. ambassador to eliminate the Soviet and Cuban military presence in his country. (Next: a promise from Mikhail Gorbachev to enter the New Hampshire primary.) Moving quickly to reciprocate, Wright bargained away a crucial form of political recognition for the democratic forces in Nicaragua, namely a contra presence at the negotiating table. Wright announced that he had gotten the contras to bow out in favor of the Church or the International Red Cross.

All this in a week, and Wright was not through. There was still the crucial issue of timing. Contra aid runs out Sept. 30. Under Wright-Reagan, the Sandinistas would have to move toward democracy in that time or the United States would consider resuming contra aid. Under Arias, the cease-fire is to happen five weeks later on Nov. 7. What about military aid in the interim? Wright does not want the president even to ask for it, because he says we should not "renew the fangs of war when we have the dove of peace." But between the contra cutoff and the start of a real cease-fire, which could be weeks or months, the contras will surely feel the fangs. Deprived of resupply, they will be sitting ducks for Sandinista helicopter gunships, whose supply of bullets will continue uninterrupted while Wright and Arias and other Nobel Peace Prize aspirants cultivate the dove of peace.

If Wright does not want to collaborate in the decimation of the contras -- and his peace plan implied that he doesn't -- he should accept the following compromise: simply extend current contra funding for another, say, three or six months, during which time negotiations proceed and the Sandinistas can demonstrate their good faith about democratization. Congress should reconsider contra aid after, not before, the Sandinistas have shown their hand.

Wright's response thus far is not encouraging. He says that he may be prepared to bridge the gap between Sept. 30 and Nov. 7 with -- brace yourself -- humanitarian aid. (The contras will certainly need the medicine and bandages. During this time they will be facing fully loaded Sandinista guns.) De'ja` vu. For those keeping track, this latest in the series of confused and irresponsible congressional reversals on contra aid counts as Boland VI.

Judging by his original peace plan, Wright wants to play statesman. Judging by his peacemaking since, he is being played for a dupe.