American politics, which is currently concluding a not very happy decade, is now suffering another bad month that it neither needs nor deserves.

Begin by listening to what the Republican challengers to Democratic Reps. Thomas "Lud" Ashley of Toledo and Berkeley Bedell of Sioux City have to say. In an "open letter" to the voters of the Sixth District of Iowa, state Sen. Clarence Carney explained why he was running: "I want to serve as a bridge over the great yawning gap between what the people want government to be and what the politicians in their Washington offices have decided we are going to have." Carney pledges to use "my office on Capitol Hill as a field headquarters in the war against inflation," and, in that combat location, Carney will "order a WATS line" to enable his constituents to talk "with their congressman without spending a bundle of money." Carney sums up his reasons for taking on Berkeley Bedell this way: "Too many congressmen become fossilized institutions in Washington, D.c. . . . out of touch with the people they are supposed to represent. There is no question that in our district, it's time for a change."

There you have it, in his own quotes, why Republican Carney is running against Democrat Bedell. And you also have why in Ohio's Ninth District Republican lawyer Ed Weber is running against Lud Asley. Weber's reasons are the same; his quotes are identical, all the way to the three little dots after "Washington, D.C." Weber personally promises to replace another fossilized institution with a WATS line.

Actually, the prose turns out to be neither Carney's nor Weber's, according to their shared political consultant, Sal Guzzetta of Virginia. Guzzetta manfully acknowledges authorship of the interchangeable Weber-Carney position papers, open letters, brochures and at least one identical television commercial.

All of this is bound to leave anyone who cares about politics more than a little sad. Running for public office is almost always the bold act of a strong ego, where everyone the candidate ever baby-sat for, double-dated with or sat next to in study hall can easily learn whether this candidate is one of those five out of six who lose.

But what has drawn generations of candidates, against both strong incumbents and those long odds, has been that marvelous chance for them to state emphatically and clearly what's on their minds: which villains they would first bring to the bar of justice, which victims of government's indifference or interference they would seek first to aid. To be a congressional candidate is to be granted that rare privilege of being able later to tell one's grandchildren, "That's why I ran in 1980 and that's what I stood for."

Ed Weber and Clarence Carney will be able to refer all such future inquiries to Sal Guzzetta, who obviously believes that all candidates can and should be created equal.

Apparently, many people consider a working knowledge of politics a grave impediment to election to political office. For years, Ronald Reagan, now within a short cab ride of the most important political position known, told everyone who would listen that he was a "citizen-politician" -- which is presumably less than a citizen but more than a politician.

Jimmy Carter, Reagan's principal competition for thhe top political job, spent large chunks of 1975-76 telling his fellow Americans that he was not a politician and large chunks of 1977-80 convincing them he had been telling the truth.

On his way out of the field, Richard Nixon managed to give politics, a pretty good and terribly important business, a very bad name. When all other defenses and excuses had failed him, Nixon tried to save his own neck by by libeling his chosen life's work. He lied: "These things happen in political campaigns." The "these things" then under discussion included domestic espionage, political sabotage and repeal of the Magna Carta. Nixon neglected to point out that nothing remotely like "these things" was ever alleged to have happened in the campaigns of Dwight Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater or Nelson Rockefeller.

Politics is not simply colorful. Politics and politicians are crucial to the peaceful resolution of the major public differences among us. We aren't going to resolve those differences by simply counting noses, flexing muscles or collecting money. It will take the skill and intelligence and dedication of accomplished politicians. How about our requiring that any applicants for high political office respect politics and admit so publicly? That would be a start.