Secretary of State George Shultz did the sensible thing last week when he turned to Bob Strauss to broker a truce with House Speaker Jim Wright. As a former chairman of the Democratic Party, Strauss knows a senseless spit-spat when he sees one. It was just a ''little tiff,'' Shultz agreed.
In a sense, Shultz is right. Wright's contacts the week before with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and the designated mediator between the Sandinistas and the Nicaraguan contras, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, hardly warranted near-hysteria. Anonymous ''high administration officials'' charged Wright with ''guerrilla theater'' and ''screwing up'' the Central American peace process. Others registered breathless dismay over a seemingly unprecedented trespass on the president's foreign policy-making prerogatives.
Come now. The speaker was doing nothing inconsistent with the role that was urged upon him by the administration's top people last summer. He was doing nothing that he had not done many times before in that capacity with the administration's knowledge and blessing.
Wright was not ''negotiating'' for the United States. He was trying to promote negotiations within the framework of a Central American peace process set in motion by El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica, together with Nicaragua. The United States is not even a party to it.
Shultz knows that. Just so, Shultz must also know what has -- and what has not -- been patched up. For at the bottom of the ''little tiff'' lie fundamental questions having to do not just with Central American policy but with the conduct of any coherent policy when the executive wants to go one way and a hostile Congress in the hands of the opposition party wants to go another. And when both sides are working with profoundly different perceptions of the problem, and the administration itself is deeply divided over policy and purposes.
When that is our political condition, ''pragmatism'' quickly becomes a buzzword for appeasement. But a pragmatic ''focus on things we agree on'' (as Shultz put it) is the only way to go when half-a-loaf solutions are the most that can be hoped for and are demonstrably better than none. Jim Wright accepts that. Ronald Reagan and the conservative red-hots do not.
You have only to revisit the record of the last five months to know that's a difference even Bob Strauss can't patch over. Some would say that Wright has warmed excessively to his Central American role. But he has good reasons. He presides over an unruly constituency, and his risky collaboration with Reagan angered liberal Democrats. He is under pressure to produce results.
Wright has a long association with the principal players in Central America; they know him. Once he was involved, it was nonsense to suppose that he would butt out whenever it suited the purposes of the administration that invited him to butt in. Moreover, Wright has good reason to believe that over the past five months the White House has been speaking with forked tongue.
It has solemnly professed its support of the peace process while regularly moving in unmistakable ways to undercut it. Wright was not unaware that the collapse of any peace effort with which he was associated would be used to make the case for a return to the policy that the president and important elements in the administration have favored all along, deep down, and that Wright and his followers in the House rigorously oppose. That's the policy of bringing the Sandinista government to its knees by nailing down enough new military aid to the contras to last well into the first year of a new presidency.
To put it mildly, the administration's strategy backfired. The Reagan/Wright peace initiative served as a catalyst rather than the spoiler that some in the administration confidently expected it would be. What emerged from Guatemala City in August falls well short of what the administration wanted -- assuming it wanted a peace process at all. But it was more than enough to solidify congressional opposition to further military aid to the resistance forces -- as the administration finally acknowledged by shelving its $270 million military-aid package until next year.
What we were hearing in last week's burst of outrage against Wright, then, was the frustration of an administration that, by its own miscalculation, now finds itself at the mercy of events it is hard put to influence. It will be no less on the outside looking in when next year's showdown comes if it is not prepared to act in the spirit of the bipartisan brokerage provided last week by Bob Strauss.