REMEMBER THE Beefsteak Election of 1946? The current maneuvering over the gasoline shortages is beginning to resemble the political mistakes that led debacle for an earlier Democratic administration.

In 1946 President Truman, deeply worried by the surge of postwar inflation, was struggling to maintain effective controls on wages and prices. Congress was reluctant. The public was ambivalent. People liked low prices, but the war had ended a year earlier and they were fed up with wartime restrictions and shortages. In the jousting over legislation, controls on food lapsed in July, but, in August, the administration reimposed them on meat. It argued that controls were essential to protect low-income workers. The livestock farmers, outraged at being singled out, retaliated by holding their animals off the market. By September some stores were closed and, at others, the lines of customers stretched for blocks. Finally, in October, the president gave up and abandoned the meat controls.

Too late. In the November elections the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress. It was Sam Rayburn who wryly dubbed it the Beefsteak Election.

The present mild and spotty shortages of gasoline are not likely to turn the next election. But it is not farfetched to suggest that President Carter is now following a track that can get him into serious trouble if the shortages become more severe. The moral of the 1946 story is that American voters seem to support price controls only as they do not interfere with the availability of accustomed commodities.

Rationing is not, unfortunately, a useful alternative. That truth has become clearer to Congress in the past few days as it wrestled with a specific plan. Rationing always sounds fine in theory; it's when you get down to writing the actual rules that the grief begins. As the plan passed the Senate, it would have given several gallons a month less to the driver living in Maryland than to a driver in precisely similar circumstances who lives in Virginia.Why? Because, statewide, more gasoline has been sold per vehicle in one state than in the other. The authors of this principle claimed that it was necessary to protect people in rural and sparsely settled states. They never explained how it happened that the states to get the least gasoline per vehicle would be Montana and North Dakota. Perhaps that was one reason why the House voted the plan down last night. Perhaps, in fact, it will be impossible to adopt any rationing plan except in the most extreme national emergency. Perhaps that's just as well.

Any rationing scheme is necessarily going to be a crude and awkward affair, creating more unfairness than it can ever cure. It is the last resort.