For those who follow the crime rates and the political analysis that attends their rise and fall, the 1980 presidential election turned out to be a surprising event. Like the dog that captured Sherlock Holmes' attention because it didn't bark, the crime problem was rendered most conspicuous by the candidates' failure to address it. Not a word in the prepared speeches of Ronald Reagan or President Carter, little more in the party platforms. One has to go back to 1960 to find a likeness: then, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon stumped the country without even referring to crime or the police.

In more recent campaigns, crime has been prominent. It catapulted in the opinion polls of 1968 to first place -- the most serious domestic issue confronting Americans -- and maintained its hegemony well into the 1970s. Now it seems to have vanished, as swiftly as it first came to public attention -- and as unexpectedly. The question is: why?

Crime first emerged as a national concern in 1964, when the Republican nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater, declared his intention to make the "abuse of law and order in this country . . . [an] issue." It was a shrewd and timely choice. Goldwater's promises to "keep the streets safe from bullies and marauders" and to see to it that "women can go out on the streets without being scared stiff" were greeted enthusiastically -- so much so that even though Lyndon Johnson won the election easily, he became saddled, against his will, with responsibility for the crime problem. During the campaign, Johnson had casually dismissed crime in the streets as a "local problem"; but when he became president, his administration would fashion a program to reduce crime.

In doing so, the Johnson administration labored under a considerable disability. Among its supporters were many who rejected the legitimacy of the crime issue, who saw it as nothing more than an proxy for racism, an anti-black euphemism. In the government, their champion was the attorney general, Ramsey Clark. Because their own interests ran elsewhere -- toward redistributing political power, manning the war on poverty, eliminating racial discrimination -- they saw the crime issue as a hazardous diversion at best. The public outcry over crime was to be countered, not accommodated.

In this setting, Johnson moved cautiously. His first move was to create a national commission, the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, to study the problem and prepare a report with recommendations for change. At the same time, he promoted a small subsidy program, the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance, to provide modest funding for research, training and crime reduction programs at the local level.

These twin moves -- first to study and then to spend -- although a rather modest beginning, served to trigger a new mood. Reticence succumbed to "Great Society" buoyancy. The sky was the limit: if we could land a man on the moon, as we were soon to do, couldn't we also design ways to rehabilitate our muggers, rapists, burglars and thieves? In this atmosphere, Johnson's call to "not only reduce but banish crime" was not received skeptically, nor was the equally grand forecast of his Crime Commission that "America can control crime if it will" seen as a utopian ambition. The "war on crime" had officially begun. i

The verbal extravagances of the Great Society were soon joined by unbounded fiscal enthusiasm. The Republicans, having capitalized hugely on the crime issue in the 1968 campaign, sought a much expanded budget for Johnson's small subsidy program. The Office of Law Enforcement Assistance became the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, the bureaucracy primarily responsible for waging the war. Its appropriations ballooned from a modest $63 million in 1968 to nearly $900 million in 1974, a flood of dollars producing in its wake studies, proposals, reforms, experiments, inventions, subsidies and more studies. An unparalleled impulse to spend our way into peaceful streets.

But optimism was short-lived. Even as Congress was expanding the LEAA budget, trucking it more dollars than could be conveniently spent, there were dark signs. Progress was more elusive than first thought. Efforts to better understand the underlying causes of crime brought forth little knowledge. New theories and proposed remedies were relinquished -- as quickly as they were spawned. Favorite targets such as the Supreme Court were attacked vigorously, then ignored, and attempts to link the crime rates to narcotics usage, unemployment or some other variable were sporadic and faddish. Where good schemes did emerge, they were rooted in common-sensical ideas -- bring suspects to trial promptly, punish major violators more seriously than other offenders -- that were difficult for the criminal justice system to implement. Easier to land a man on the moon than to modernize the court-calendaring system.

Clearly, doubt was in the air. It appeared that the concept of breakthrough that characterizes much scientific research had no application to crime control. Our understanding seemed limited, our technology frail, our managerial skills slight and our institutions frozen. U.S. News & World Report observed: "On one point, authorities agree: no quick solutions can be expected." President Ford added: "It is simply impossible to devise a cure-all or quick fix to reduce crime."

Even these declarations, blunt by the standards of a few years ago, smacked of political euphemism. The truth was harsher. It was not merely that short-term solutions were unavailable; more precisely, it was that success over the long haul was not foreseeable either. (The belief that government can control crime rates may itself be little more than a popular prejudice.)

If all this is so, or largely so, no wonder the candidates avoided the crime issue in 1980. They had nothing sensible to propose, nothing that didn't sound like some proposal of yesterday, a reinvention not of the wheel, but of the flat tire. Better to leave bad enough alone.

As for the voters, certainly they were preoccupied with other issues -- inflation and the hostages. But apart from this, it may be that they didn't press the candidates because they too had come to accept the government's impotence to make the streets safe. In 1964, when Sen. Goldwater was speaking out, if one complained that the city parks weren't safe, he would have received a sympathetic response. Today, the grievance would not be voiced -- nobody uses the parks after dark. It takes a foreign visitor to remind us that there are countries where one can take an evening's stroll without fear of "bullies or marauders."

In 1964, when the crime "issue" first appeared, our large cities were run by white politicians and policed by white officers, and anti-crime sentiment had more than a small dosage of racism embedded in it. Perhaps for this reason, the black politicians who now run things in many large cities shy away from making the crime issue their own. In the District of Columbia, for example, home rule has taken root, but the elected leadership has evidenced more concern about controlling the police -- witness the resuscitation of the Civilian Complaint Review Board -- than making them effective. Unless one has the historic backdrop of police excesses in view, it seems a paradox that those most affected by crime are least concerned.

Yet one can't say good riddance to the crime issue with an easy conscience. Crime is more than a proxy for racism, narcotics addiction, unemployment or any other set of ills. It threatens the democratic fabric, ever a fragile weave, and invites both a preoccupation with order and, paradoxically, lawless techniques to achieve it. In short, the fact of crime and the reality of our failure to reduce it diminish our sense of self, our value as a society. Both need to be better understood. That both have been ignored in the past campaign does not mean that they should be similarly treated during the next four years. With national elections turning on issues other than crime, it may be possible, for the first time since 1960, to work in a calm atmosphere -- to start over, to renew our efforts, to study, to experiment.