Sooner or later it was bound to happen. Sooner or later the liberals would run out of New Frontiers of guilt and seize upon the last one: their own liberalism.

For decades, the liberal conscience was like that insatiable bacteria engineered to gobble oil spills. It went about devouring guilt about racism and sexism, class and carcinogens, phosphates, leaded gas and assorted social ills that spread out across the surface of society.

Liberals held the genetic patent on guilt. They were the pseudomonas of politics.

So, they were predestined to turn inward and devour themselves. What is more typical, quintessentially liberal than feeling guilt about liberalism?

Now, if you have been away or depressed, you may have missed the chorus of mea culpas, or the parade of the culpable meas. But let me assure you that it's going around. You cannot pick up the paper or the telephone these days without hearing from someone who has given up the ghost along with the Volvo and publicly confessed to "going too far."

Being a liberal is out; being a Repentant Liberal is in.

A Repentant Liberal is one who has actually read a corporate ad and agreed with an article telling him where the New Deal went wrong.

A Repentant Liberal is one who has, at least once, felt uncomfortable for ever having wanted a great society.

A Repentant Liberal is one who has said out loud either "I really do have to learn more about economics," or "Right now social programs are a luxury," or "I don't think I could ever vote for Reagan, but they do have a point."

A Repentant Liberal has one of the following:

1) A kid in college who didn't qualify for a loan because the parents earned "too much" money.

2) An elderly relative left behind in a "changing" neighborhood.

3) A friend who knows a guy who used food stamps to buy steaks.

4) A boss who got her job "because she was a woman."

5) A banker who won't give them a mortgage.

6) A brother-in-law who works for the GSA.

7) A kid in a big-city public high school.

I am not downgrading the latest set of qualms vibrating across the shaky left wing of the country. At some time or another, I have said, or had, almost all of the above.

It is absolutely clear that every major change has what the policy-makers call "unintentional consequences" -- what you and I would call "rotten side effects." The liberals didn't add the warnings to their original labels.

But now it's all obvious. The pie isn't getting any bigger and so it's harder to share with more people. It's become clear that the program helping those who cannot work may also help those who will not work; the regulation set up to help a consumer can hamstring a producer.

It's hard to defend one set of rights without attaching another; hard to act affirmatively for some without affecting others negatively. We all know that now.

The liberal agenda, like some massive public building, came in way over cost. Like the John Hancock Building in Boston, the building is up but the windows keep falling out.

Still, there is something appalling about the rash of liberals asking forgiveness for their good intentions. They seem to have bought the idea, with alarming ego as well as speed, that they are responsible for the bleak state of the nation.

Never mind the cost of the Vietnam War or Arab oil. Never mind the fact that big corporations have been as malignant and incompetent as big government. Never mind that authority can be as threatening as anarchy. Never mind the fact that at the moment the only alternatives to tired old liberal ideas are equally tired and old conservative ideas.

We seem to be choosing this year between the sound of cant and the sound of recanting. Frankly, I'd rather hear the slightest murmur of a new idea, a new way to do something more than muddle through.

The Repentant Liberals are people who say, "It would be nice to be humane, but we have to be realistic." But surely it's possible, even in this peak season of pessimism, to devise new ways to be both.