When a respected Democratic senator accuses the leader of his party, who happens to be the president, of "outrageous, deplorable conduct" and "hypocrisy," you would think a dramatic political controversy had begun. But the remarks the other day by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina passed out of public consciousness shortly after they were uttered. They were momentary news, but not new. Criticism of President Carter is an everyday event on every public issue.

Hollings' words are instructive, though, for they underscore a problem about Carter -- the perception of the president's inconsistency. Even his staunchest supporters find themselves confounded by what appear to be shifts and turns on major issues. Hollings was pointing to the budget in his example. What infuriated him was the spectacle of Carter assailing Congress for adding too much money for defense at the expense of cuts in social programs.

The same president began the year by reversing his stand on cutting defense spending -- a substantial change that came in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which he described as the gravest threat to peace since World War II. His so-called "Carter Doctrine," drawing the line in the Persian Gulf and pledging to take any action necessary, including military, to protect American interests there, was backed up by his stated determination to increase defense spending.

Early in January, Carter was saying the Afghanistan invasion could pay dividends to America in the future by awakening the nation to the need to be stronger militarily. He spoke of the desire to have a "constant buildup of our military strength through budget commitments and otherwise," and added:

"Historically, presidents have proposed greater military budgets than the Congress has been willing to grant. I think there's been a narrowing between the difference between what I propose and what Congress will accept . . . This is a move in the right direction which will have a profound significance not only in American attitudes but also the conviction among our allies that we are resolved, that we are strong and getting stronger among our potential adversaries. I think there's been a shift in opinion throughout the country in support of strong defense, and I might say, coincidentally, this is a reasonable approach."

In recent months, as the primary process wound on and the economic conditions further deteriorated, there's hardly been a presidential word about Afghanistan and the gravest threat to peace in a generation. Recent events have not helped clear up public confusion about just where the president stands. In a matter of days, for instance, the president took seemingly contradictory actions on the matter of defense spending.

First he wrote an extraordinary letter to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John C. Stennis, warning that adding defense money to budget proposals "could adversely affect today's military readiness . . ." Then, several days later, he flew off to greet the returning crew of the carrier Nimitz, back from long duty in the Persian Gulf, and promised them, to great cheers, that he was going to get them increased pay and benefits.

Defense is by no means the only area in which the president appears inconsistent. Handling of the economy is another major area.

Four years ago this spring, as The National Journal recently recalled, Carter, the candidate, put out the following statement on the way he would handle the economy as president:

"There are far more humane and economically sound solutions to curbing inflation than enforced recession, unemployment, monetary restrictions and high interest rates."

When that policy of fighting inflation through high interest rates and tight money produced what now is being forecast as the steepest recession since the Great Depression, the switch began to preserve social programs in the budget at the expense of defense.

Another example: on Friday, the president signed into law a bill adding $750 million over the next five years to improve railroad service between Boston and Washington. "Americans sometimes forget that trains are the transportation of the future, not the past," he said.

That may be so -- indeed, it should be so -- but it's hard to see how the Carter administration has helped us achieve that goal. This, after all, is the administration, that proposed to cut Amtrak passenger rail service by 43 percent in the midst of the energy crisis. You'll not find many passengers who think service has improved these past three years. They know from painful experience just the opposite. Rail service remains a national disgrace. Many of the trains have been running on a slower schedule than they were 40 years ago.

Certainly Carter is not responsible for all the ills that beset us. To expect a president to adhere strictly to every announced policy is equally simple-minded; he must be free to change with circumstances and remain flexible to face new conditions. But a president also has to be able to explain his course to the people, clearly and directly. That, Carter has not been doing.

In the weeks before Pearl Harbor, when war obviously was approaching, Franklin D. Roosevelt quoted Lincoln's remarks that the people "have got the idea into their heads that we are going to get out of this fix somehow by strategy." Walter Lippmann, as usual, neatly shifted the focus to where it belonged -- from the people to the president.

"He ought not to forget," Lippmann said of FDR, "that the ideas the people get into their heads about this fix, they get from their responsible leaders. They get them from the words and acts of the president."

At this point the words and acts of the president are producing neither consistency nor clarification. They are producing confusion.