THE QUESTION of the day, month and perhaps year is contra aid, but the discussion of it in this crucial passage is going poorly, perhaps partly because the question is not everywhere put in a proper way.

The wrong way is to look at contra aid as a question of principle. Thus, reinforcing certain Reagan administration pronouncements and inclinations, some people say that aid in large doses is right and necessary on an open-ended basis in order to bring peace and democracy. By peace and democracy is meant nothing short of the demise of the Sandinista regime: either it crumbles over time in battle or, submitting to the popular will, it is cast into darkness at the polls. Others, mostly in Democratic ranks, believe that contra aid is wrong as a matter of principle. Many arguments are offered to support this proposition, but for true believers, none is needed. Although they are not all equally ready to say so, the believers are prepared to accept almost any internal political result that follows termination of the resistance military campaign.

The right form of the question of contra aid is, we think, more pragmatic. Is contra aid likely to stiffen or moderate the Sandinistas and to lead on to an acceptable foreign policy result? To ask this question means, for one thing, that you have not already chosen your answer: you are willing to see what hard evidence the Sandinistas provide in the next few weeks that, if contra aid is cut off, they will respect their democratization pledges. There is no denying that their fellow Latins are making severe demands on them, but the demands are fair. The Sandinistas are being asked to limit their political power to the share the people freely give them: that could conceivably mean they would consolidate their power. They are being asked to share their country's revolution of 1979 with the full range of Nicaraguans who then supported it and who were only later diverted, by Sandinista power-grabbing, into opposition.

In the past we felt contra aid would invariably redound to the benefit of the Sandinistas. But aid has turned out to be a factor in prodding them to respond to Central American diplomacy. What is on view now is an effort to convert this diplomatic and military pressure into the coin of a fair, if necessarily ragged, political process. The Sandinistas are likelier to respond positively, we think, if, viewing the tumult in Washington, they conclude they are not assured of a free ride and must meet high standards of compliance to get the contras off their back.