The question is this: Will the Democrats let a Democratic President pursue a domestic policy that is different from plain old more-is-better liberalism? The answer seems to be, no - at least, not without a titanic struggle. As he works up his new "urban policy" and his budget for the coming fiscal year, Jimmy Carter is finding this out. He is under sustained pressure from the party's organized constituencies - labor, the minorities, the education and social-welfare bureaucracies, municipal and state officials - to proceed along familiar big-money, big-involvement, interventionist lines.

Carter is resisting, but not very articulately and not to very good political effect. He has a better case than he is making, but until he makes it will remain vulnerable to the (highly articulate) complaints of those Democrats who are coming to view him as a kind of skinflint, a warmed-over Gerald Ford on domestic issues.

The Carter case begins with the fact that he was not elected solely by the big social spending constituencies of his party. At least as important, perhaps more so, were the voters who were impressed by his willingness to question the relevance of certain Democratic-liberal programs and doctrines to the needs of the 1970s. There is, of course, no sharp, clear line here. Some programs and doctrines associated with the Great Society and earlier federal efforts are better than others; many people are themselves of two minds on the general worth of go-go government as prescribed over the years by liberal Democrats; and within Carter's own administration there is certainly much ferment and dispute between the skeptics, on the one hand, and the "massive infusion" crowd, on the other. So the domestic trumpet is bound to be a little uncertain. My point is merely that Carter has stronger and more positive arguments to make than those that may be summed up: "Sorry, guys, there's just not enough money."

These arguments grow out of an ever-expanding body of research and literature (not to mention simple observation and experience), indicating that there is every reason to proceed with caution and restraint so far as Washington's domestic interventions are concerned. In housing, welfare, tax, health and jobs programs, candid officials will readily admit that many of Washington's initiatives have had upredictable and unfortunate effects on precisely those citizens they were supposed to serve. More generally, there is a concession that the federal government really does not know how to do some of the things it sets out to do. And it has also become increasingly apparent that the line of reasoning which holds that every problem deserves a program has helped to layer over the society and the individual in a glue of inhibitions, regulations and restrictions that can make life worse, not better.

Still, all the troubling information and insights that have become available in recent years don't seem to be proof against the powerful symbolism of money and federal intervention as evidence of "compassion" in the White House. It is true that people talk more irreverently these days about the Feds and that everyone seems to be "anti-Washington." But it is revealing, I think, that there is hardly an interest group or constituency around that is not arguing for a Cabinet-level agency organized around its concerns, or a White House conference, or a special presidential assistant or a "national policy." The impulse is to involve Washington, and the measure of Washington's "caring" is taken in dollar expenditures - never mind that some of the short-term benefits have disastrous long-term consequences.

I will probably have to turn in my badge for saying it, but in my view two of the better things Carter has done in social policy have been 1) to resist endorsement of the Humphrey-Hawkins full-employment bill and 2) to compel the people who were drawing up his new welfare proposal to show him, before they recommended spending any new money, what they could get in the way of reform from revising the current programs and spending only the current amounts. This last, of course, was regarded in the social-welfare community as an act of police brutality on Carter's part, even though everyone knows that there is vast waste and misdirected money in the program. His resistance to Humphrey-Hawkins began back in the 1976 campaign and was based on the (I think) admirable view that he could not support legislation that seemed to him to be built on false promises and to propound policies that, if they could be carried out, would do the economy - and the poor - more harm than good.

Carter has backed off both these positions, negotiating a kind of bland endorsement of a greatly weakened Humphrey-Hawkins full-employment bill now, and putting forward a welfare reform that would cost more than the current programs. Especially on the first of these moves - the Humphrey-Hawkins endorsement, which the Congressional Black Caucus made a test of his good faith - Carter yielded to the overwhelming force of liberal symbolism. But it is not clear how he could do something similar in relation to - say - the cities in his forthcoming urban policy. With a $60-billion deficit there is simply nothing like the money available that the critics are demanding he throw into the pot. And even if there were, serious students of urban affairs could hardly agree as to how the money should be spent.

This last is really the point. So long as Carter seems to be apologizing for being out of cash, so to speak, as distinct from pointing out that in many respects the government Establishment is out of ideas, he will keep taking a political beating. The people who are insisting that he make investments in their constituents' well-being on a far grander scale can, after all, always find the money - in some other, less favored, program. Some people have laid the President's lack of clarity in all this to the fact that he has in his Cabinet and around him in general some of the more committed "interventionists" of the Great Society years, such as Joe Califano at HEW. But it is also true that Carter has, very close to the heart of policymaking in these matters, two dedicated skeptics - his chief domestic aide, Stuart Eizenstat, and the head of his Council of Economic Advisers, Charles Schultze. He is not being swamped or buried in 1960s ideas.

I think Carter's problem is that he has yet to devise or articulate his own theory of the case, that he seems content to split the difference with his liberal critics and that in so doing he seems to buy their premise that the more is better, but he can't afford in just now. This is surely a no-win game, as will become apparent in the budget fights to come in the new year. Carter has much more going for his modest approach to social programs than he seems willing to acknowledge, and so long as he lets this be the case, he will remainat a political disadvantage.