"GORBACHEV Reelected Party Chief,'' says the headline. It might better say ''Gorbachev Sustains Dying Party.'' Or ''Gorbachev Fudges on Reform.'' Or ''Gorbachev's Course Uncertain.'' Any of these alternatives might better describe what has been going on at the Communist party congress in Moscow in recent days.

The problem is simply put: governance in the Soviet Union has for 70 years been in the tight grip of a party that, denying others access to power, has used its political monopoly to run the country into the ground. Now the reform spirit is raging across the land, but the unreformed, privileged, traditional and incompetent elements of the party retain their grip on much of the machinery of power. Mikhail Gorbachev himself has been attempting the feat of encouraging reform while keeping the party in control. The contradiction is apparent, but he shrinks from cutting the knot, in part, it seems, because of personal mental habit, in part because of political convenience.

There is a solution. It is to abandon and isolate the party side of Soviet power as swiftly as possible and to build up the new, politically accountable government side, where the people have a chance in multiparty elections and in autonomous economic units to make the crucial political and economic choices. To symbolize such a policy, Mr. Gorbachev, instead of bravely slugging it out at the party congress with the conservatives, would simply have gone to the office he occupies as president -- rather in the fashion of American forces leapfrogging Japanese-defended islands in the Pacific war. At least he would have aligned himself unequivocally with the political elements -- the republics, the localities, the ''radicals,'' the free-marketeers, the restless workers and shoppers, the whole Boris Yeltsin constituency -- which represent the country's best hope for renewal.

The Western nations have spent the past week, in London and in Houston, adjusting their military, political and economic approaches to a changing Soviet Union. Much remains to be done, but it is no small accomplishment that the West has been catching up with events and is ready to engage the Soviet Union productively across the board. The West is working out the contradictions and lags in its foreign policy more effectively than the Kremlin -- admittedly, with the heavier burden -- which is working out the contradictions and lags in its policy at home. The discrepancy is now at the center of East-West relations.