It began with the first exit poll on Nov. 4 and it hasn't stopped yet. Throughout this city, every kind of analyst has been busy putting the battered Democrats under this microscope or onto that couch.

The early consensus holds that the Democrats are afflicted with an acute shortage of ideas, complicated by severely blurred vision. Undaunted, the Democrats, winners in just 10 of the 33 most recent Senate races, are right now girding for one more civil war -- this one over the party chairmanship -- in their political leper colony.

By now, it has to be evident to even the most dedicated Democratic Carterphobes that the party's problems did not all arrive with Jimmy Carter and his Georgians. Nor will they simply depart when the preisent does.

The principal cerebral problem of the Democrats is not their shortage of innovative proposals, but the party's continuing surplus of ideological premises. Before the Democrats start the wholesale adoption of fresh answers, they would be wise first to shed a few stale assumptions.

Here are a few nominations for early retirement from the political debate.

First, the mistaken belief that, in nearly all cases and at virtually any cost, Public is preferable to and superior to Private. Everyone's daily experience -- involving, say, a visit to the local shopping center followed by a cameo appearance at the local motor vehicles office -- contradicts this notion. But the nice thing about active political theology is that one is not deflected by daily experience.

A more dangerous premise that has haunted too many Democratic debates: the U.S. military, and anything associated with it, is both brutally loutish and diabolically clever. Ignore any evidence to the contrary.

For those who hold this view, the inspiring life of Gen. George Marshall can be explained only in terms of some weird aberration from the norm of the American fighting man. For that norm, look right past even the crafty Sgt. Bilko, who made a career of exposing and exploiting official Army stupidity: he was too likable. The real representative? Former Army lieutenant William Calley.

In spite of some strong praise, some years back, for the ideal of participatory democracy, some adjustments were necessary in order to achieve justice. In the chosing of Democratic national convention delegates, the principle of represetation had to be repealed. Sure, it was important to guarantee access. But the best way to do that, it turned out, was to guarantee an appropriate outcome for the whole process. Maybe, as some charged, that was a certain ursurping of the voters' own judgment; maybe a good-fake effort was required to rig the results to meet the preordained demographic formulas. But just you wait until the mosaic of the Democratic convention is seen in living color. What a visual!

One other non-working assumption severely aggravated the Democrats' case of political poison ivy. That assumption obnoxiously holds that while it is acceptable to be rich and it is virtuous to be poor, it is simply unacceptable to be middle class. In fact, for some of these folks, "middle class" has become the ultimate pejorative in attacking proposals such as tuition credits.

For the people who hold these views and these values, the middle class is composed of several million Archie Bunkers who are the real roadblocks to true progress. Middle-class patriotism can be explained only as a first-cousin of bigotry. Politics, for such people, is not a matter of addition; addition means coalition and coalition means compromise. Compromise can mean only one thing: sacrificing one's non-negotiable demands.

Who are all these remarkable folks who have promulgated premises? In public life they are much more lkely to hold appointive positions than elected ones. On Capitol Hill, they are much more likely to be committee staff than committee members. On Nov. 5, quite a few of them were Xeroxing their very impressive resumes with their very impressive references. For years, many of them, when asked to help out in a political campaign, had announced a little haughtily: "I work on issues. I don't have anything to do with politics."

On Nov. 4, 1980, the middle class, perhaps grown tired of being both put upon and depended upon by the Democrats, took a walk. According to the CBS-New York Times poll of actual voters, Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter 55 percent to 36 percent among all white voters and 54 percent to 37 percent among voters aged 30 to 44. So much for the premises.