Ralph Nader, as they say in the locker rooms, is a "phenom." Since the mid-1960s he has transformed a one-man safety crusade into a diverse consumer movement of great authority and influence.

His success is not based on the number of troops or dollars he can muster for the political wars. His Center for the Study of Responsive Law has no members at all; it consists of Mr. Nader and a staff of 10 or 12.

But in their ability to influence public opinion, Nader and his followers have had few peers in this century. There are Nader disciples in newsrooms and broadcast studios all over America. They have spread his message throughout the land. He has attained the status of folk hero, a Pied Piper who whistles up great winds of change.

Today, however, he sulks, frustrated at his inability to whistle up among erstwhile friends in the "media" and in Congress any outrage at the Washington "pay grab" that took effect this month. It raises the salaries of House members and thousands of federal officials by $35,000 a year and sweetens the pension benefits of your friendly congressman by $400,000 to $2 million, depending on time in office.

In a town in which "soak the rich" rhetoric has become commonplace, it is surprising that Mr. Nader's own rhetoric on this issue has had so little resonance. A $35,000-a-year pay increase, he insists, is twice the average wage in the United States. We are bestowing it on people who already earn more than 99 percent of their constituents and at a time when "programs affecting the middle class and the poor {are being} cut across the board." Finally, it is a reward to the same people who are bankrupting the country, who presided over the housing and savings and loan scandals and are up to their necks in "corruption, waste and campaign finance sleaze." No wonder that a leading Republican pollster found that 79 percent of the electorate wants the "pay grab" repealed.

These are themes calculated to make the so-called Eastern Liberal Press salivate, especially when combined with evidence that the "pay grab" came about in part through political collusion and blackmail. Chairmen of the Republican and Democratic national committees -- Lee Atwater and Ron Brown -- and chairmen of the Republican and Democratic congressional campaign committees signed a formal agreement designed to suppress any discussion of the congressional pay issue in the 1990 election campaigns. In a letter to House Speaker Thomas Foley in October, Mr. Nader charged that House members were, in effect, being blackmailed by the leadership to withhold their support of legislation to repeal the "pay grab." He named names and said special-interest lobbyists got the same treatment.

That sounds like "news," but it vanished in the void. There are explanations. The "pay grab" was not a partisan issue and was not a divisive issue within the American political class, which includes not only the politicians but the press and interest groups as well. A principal definition of "news" is controversy: no controversy, no news. The "media" intellectualized their support for the pay increase. The Washington Post and The New York Times found civic hope in the theory that higher salaries would lessen the dependence of lawmakers on "special interest" money and in the theory that good people are attracted to public service by salaries competitive in the private marketplace.

A cultural reality may have been even more decisive in Mr. Nader's inability to light fires around this issue. The political class is an affluent class. That is especially true in Washington, the wealthiest metropolis in the world. Lifestyles are expensive. So Washington lawyers and lobbyists, including lobbyists for the "media," do what they do on incomes of hundreds of thousands a year. Even the "public interest" types -- Marian Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund, Horace Deets of the AARP, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, Benjamin Hooks of the NAACP, Arthur Kropp of People for the American Way and Fay Nettleton of Planned Parenthood -- are in or near the six-figure league. So are the newspaper editors, columnists and bureau chiefs, the television and magazine people. Given their own incomes and patterns of consumption, how could they begrudge the struggling congressman a minimum wage of $125,000 or a vice president with a young family to raise, $160,600?

They may share many of Mr. Nader's ideals. But the poverty vow is not one of them.