This article is not about presidential politics or even Democrats or Republicans, it's about the politics of trade.

It is no surprise that trade issues are beginning to affect American presidential politics. Trade has threatened to do so in the past, but never made it.

It is not the magnitude of abstract numbers that is catching the voters' attention -- not the value of the dollar, nor the nation's massive trade deficit, nor America's position as the world's largest debtor. The unfairness of the present situation is what offends the average American. Unfortunately, that unfairness causes a visceral and inaccurate reaction that unfair trade practices are the sole reason for our miserable trade picture when, in fact, they are only a modest part of our problem.

Why is this subject so compelling now? After all, the problem has been growing for the preceding two decades. Why has this conduct now become less tolerable? The difference between today and yesteryear is not that the barriers abroad are higher, or that the United States is poorer or that our unemployment is higher.

The difference is that our tolerance of foreign barriers has become much reduced largely because Americans are realizing that other countries' economies have grown dramatically during these years. That other countries are now no longer weak and poor. They are rich and powerful competitors. But they have been slow to abandon their policies of protection.

While we are not perfect, it takes only a few simple examples of closed markets abroad and openness at home to elicit a strong response from the American electorate that it is time that others do their share by allowing their producers to bear the burdens of international trade as well as accepting the benefits of access to foreign markets. That it is time for them to take a larger responsibility for Third World growth, for example. The American people want something done about it!

Well, what is to be done? There has been a lot of silly talk of a choice between protectionism and free trade and expressions of concern that Congress is about to revert to a 1930 Smoot-Hawley approach to trade. This is just plain nonsense. The leadership of Congress, Democratic and Republican, is not protectionist, but it does expect that a tougher standard be maintained in dealings with our trading partners. This is not unreasonable. In large part, this is what the current trade bill is all about -- providing a legislative mandate and the tools needed to get the job of trade negotiations done.

Is the trade bill just right? No, it is about what you would expect from a process in which the executive and the legislative branches have so far failed to come together for the tough bargaining that would result in sensible compromises. That is the necessary next step, and there is no time like the present to get the job done, and the key players all know it. The administration will spend most of its time trying to chuck out some of the embellishments that congressional enthusiasms have produced, but with a week or so of dedicated effort there is nothing to prevent a good, sound bill from being worked out. In my judgment, the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate would respond promptly to an administrative initiative.

We do need this legislation for many obvious reasons. For example, under our present system, the president and his negotiators can show up at international bargaining tables and sign agreements, but they can't get them implemented unless Congress signs on. This makes negotiating extremely difficult. The trade bill gives the executive the mandate to enter into trade talks and, more important, the means to live up to the agreements reached. The trade bill can also make the chief trade negotiator someone who has the authority to act in his area of competence the way that the secretaries of state, Treasury and commerce can act in theirs. The delegation of trade authority is necessary to ensure that American's trade negotiator has the clout needed for dealing with an opposite number across the bargaining table, as well as the ability to deal with trade problems directly through the administration of the trade laws.

In this year, the politics of trade require attention at several levels -- for the presidential candidates in their positions before the American electorate; for the administration and the congressional leadership, as they search to reestablish the partnership that is necessary to construct and deliver on the nation's trade agenda; and for dealing with foreign countries, as the United States inevitably moves to strike a new balance in its trading relations.

There should be no embarrassment in the president's and Congress' taking a responsible but stronger stand on trade issues. To do so is not protectionist -- to fail to do so is evading responsibility.

The writer, former Democratic national chairman, served as special representative for trade negotiations during the Carter administration.