In an odd way, it's a sign of progress.

In Springfield, Ill., the ERA fell just short of passage -- but not because the legislators were against equal rights. They were "merely" against the amendment.

In Chicago, Ronald Reagan let it be known he wanted the ERA off the Republican Party platform -- but not because he was against equal rights. He was "merely" against the amendment.

"We are all agreed on equal rights," he said after a closed session with 13 Republican governors. "We just happen to disagree with the best method of obtaining those equal rights. . . ."

Well, in the midst of this little spat about "methodology," one thing has become clear. It is no longer socially acceptable to be overtly against equality.

You can no longer suggest in polite or political company that women are disqualified for equal pay because of raging hormonal imbalance or ruled out of full public life because from time to time they have an odd habit of giving birth.

So, you must do what politicians are so adept at: Change Tactics and Dance.

Changing tactics is actually twice as much fun as changing partners. It works like this:

In the beginning, you refuse to listen to the issue because it is "too trivial."

Then, when people force you to pay attention, you refuse to support it because the activists are too "strident" or "radical." (You may also substitute "humorless" there, if they did not laugh at your joke.)

Later, when the issue becomes a mainstream majority view, you say that, of course, you agree with the goal -- I mean, who doesn't? -- but disagree with the way to achieve it.

Changing Tactics works when you are faced with any number of social problems and programs -- full employment and poverty come to mind -- but it is particularly effective when dealing with women's rights.

After years of fighting the ERA as a radical idea, for example, you can now fight it as an unnecessary piece of federal overkill. You can even say, patting women on the back, that they have come so far they hardly even need it anymore.

So, we have such stalwart anti-ERA folk as Orrin Hatch of Utah and John Tower of Texas saying that the Republican Party must make its commitment to women's rights clear, while they ditch the party's 40-year-old commitment to the amendment.

Even my pen pal Phyllis Schlafly tells a reporter that the Republican Platform Committee could come out with an equal pay clause. "No one's against that," she says.

The one constant in Changing Tactics is that at no time do you have to Change Your Mind.

I hate to impugn the motives of Illinois legislators or the Republican near-nominee and His Gang. No doubt they are all honorable men. What bugs me and what is probably bugging the purged co-chair of the Republican Party, Mary Crisp, is their double-talk.

"It's a cop-out," says Crisp. "I heard Maureen Reagan say that maybe there are two routes [to equal rights], but she wouldn't live long enough to get there if we went the route of her father."

It is absolutely true that we can change federal laws without an ERA. But according to the Civil Service Commission, there are 800 statutes that discriminate at the federal level.

It also is true that we can use existing tools -- like Title IX to attack discrimination in education and Title VII to attack it in employment -- but that is an even longer and more uncertain process. At best, we could make progress an inch at a time; at worst, the legislature can vote away the titles.

An amendment gives women constitutional protection and shifts the burden of proof, for a change, onto the people who want to discriminate. In short, if equal rights is the destination, the amendment is the way to get there at something faster than a snail's pace.

This Changed Tactic isn't going to fool anyone for very long. The only way to be for equal rights and against the ERA is to do it with mirrors. And double-talk is a rotten political image to reflect in 1980.