If you want to understand the politics and the real issues of the 1980 campaign, start by putting aside all the candidates' position papers and prepared texts. Ignore their press releases. Instead, go directly to your nearest coffee table or dentist's waiting room and open up a magazine, practically any magazine.

The odds are very good that in that magazine you will find a number of full-page ads that are not selling any particular mouthwash or malt liquor, but that are hard-selling a point of view and a public philosophy. The underwriter of the ad could be a pharmaceutical house or a trade association or -- more likely -- an oil company. And the public philosophy is unexpurgated Adam Smith as told to Ayn Rand: the immediate curtailment, if not elimination, of federal regulations that are "hamstringing" American business.

You may have been deceived by the unseemly haste with which some of our businessmen were all over Fidel Castro like a cheap suit when the Havana market appeared to be opening up. Or perhaps you thought American soft-drink manufacturers, in their thirsty pursuit of the Moscow market, were putting profit before principle. Well, think again, because to read these advertisements is to encounter the Federalist papers on slick stock.

Their anonymous authors tell us what lumbermen are not so much interested in razing forests to make and sell lumber as they are concerned about their bulldozers' disturbing Bambi at play. And the lumber people are almost as nice as the oil -- excuse me, energy people. These Albert Schweitzers with drilling equipment basically want only to provide the rest of us with economical, abundant energy. One oil company, after flirting with Chapter 11 proceedings last year -- when a dollar's worth of sales turned only a nickels worth of profit -- is proving it has no hard feelings toward the rest of us by investing a dime in "new energy projects" this year for every one of those 1979 nickels.

With all that industrial know-how and relentless good will, if not altruism, someone may ask why things are not better than they obviously are. The reason is simple, according to the advertisements. It's that army of federal regulators. Those faceless bureaucrats, who undoubtedly never met a payroll, are not simply muddled meddlers; they are, we have learned, malevolent. The Cotton Council has blown the whistle in an ad about regulators who have mandated such unrealistic clean-air standards for cotton-processing plants that you may, right this minute, be wearing your last cotton shirt. Who is stopping us -- through our appointed agents, the oil/energy companies -- from turning oil shale into gasoline? You guessed it: some federal regulators. The gas-from-shale procedure will take more than technology. It will require major surgery on some red tape.

This fairly recent form of communications is called advocacy advertising. Not adversary advertising, because nobody is buying space or taking the time to argue the other side of the question. A Democratic president who in another time might have declaimed about the "money-changers" and their "snake oil" does not respond to the print assault upon his administration's environmental standards.

Organized labor, which might be expected to rebut some of its employers' magazine polemics, weakly suggests that we look for the union label, while the Teamsters are quite pleased, thank you, with helpful federal regulation of the trucking industry.

An elementary sense of fairness demands that the kernel of truth in the business advertising be frankly acknowledged. The fact is that the ideas of business are virtually the only ideas in circulation this election year. The liberals have seemingly run out of ideas and become what they have historically reproached: the defenders of the status quo. Liberals on the offensive, pushing change and piercing our complacency, may be bothersome but they are interesting. Liberals, minus either agenda or adrenalin, are tiresome.

But now it seems that liberals are even incapable of marshalling a case for the successes of the active government for which they were both advocates and architects. Liberals have won significant victories and wrought real change in our public life. Liberals -- not conservatives -- forced true civil rights for blacks. Liberals -- not conservatives, strangely enough -- stopped the plunder of natural resources. Liberals put a halt to stock fraud, brought electric power to rural America, guaranteed workers the right to organize, repealed the hoary doctrine of caveat emptor, and probably saved capitalism in the process. Liberals were the tribunes of the powerless and the real comforters of the afflicted. But somewhere during the struggle, pragmatism became a pejorative for many liberals and, for these same folks, the liberal faith became the liberal theology. And now they are tired. Too tired to argue with magazine ads in which their traditional adversaries portray themselves as so many Mother Teresas in counting-houses.

It is still true in 1980 that whichever side in a campaign dominates the dialogue of the campaign almost invariably wins the election. The issues that these business ads are presenting so persuasively and attractively -- the balanced budget, the need to cut the size, scope and spending of the federal government -- are the very issues that Ronald Reagan has been championing for the past 16 years and the issues that the polls tell us are on voters' minds. Do not call Mark Lane: this is not a conspiracy, but it is a convergence of interests and values.

While Reagan, if nominated, will be limited by federal statute from spending more than $29 million to present his views in the general election, he has been and will be blessed by the efforts of kindred souls with bigger budgets. Last year, it is estimated that advocacy advertising by business amounted to $145 million. For any candidate, that's some kind of surrogate. Some independent expenditure. And every time any citizen has, or hears about, one more unhappy encounter with one more surly or stupid bureaucrat, the ads will make more sense to one more voter. And Ronald Reagan will become an even more serious candidate for president of the United States.