IF THERE WERE a primer entitled "Robert's Rules of Political Survival," every dogeared copy would have one heavily fingerprinted page containing a warning that the shortest route to political infamy is a straight line of opposition to rent controls. The political officeholder who seeks an end to rent controls may wind up with the end of an elective career -- even if his stand happens to be in the best interests of would-be renters. For a sample of this falk, in fact, one need flip no farther than the latest news pages to see how any local leaders who oppose rent controls become intant villains allegedly in cahoots with evil landlords.

Consider the case of Montgomery County, where wiser heads have prevailed in an effort to substitute enlightened housing policy for unrealistic rent controls. In front of us we find a news report telling us flatly that the decision to let rent controls expire "was a much welcomed victory for the well-heeled and persistent 'property' lobby, which has fought controls since they were introduced . . . " That's the sort of straight scoop that revives the old stereotype of the "landlord" as that mean man in the black stovepipe hat and tails, with the waxed moustache and more money than General Motors. In the name of ever-fatter profits, he's out to kill the great protector of all tenants, better known as rent controls. Never mind inflation, just hold the line on rents.

But for those who understand and welcome the efforts of County Executive Charles Gilchrist to end rent controls, the same story could be presented a little differently; an account might well report that the decision "was a much welcome victory for those who have been suffering because of a dwindling supply of rental housing." It might even refer to "landlords" as rental-property owners "seeking long overdue relief from inflation's effects on operating costs."

There is no question that tenants are feeling the pinch of inflation in a tight housing market. But requiring property owners to eat those costs of inflation is the surest way to turn them to better ways to break even or, heaven forbid, turn a profit of any kind. That is why Mr. Gilchrist and other progressive thinkers on this score in Montgomery have been moving to ease the transition away from rent controls, through a series of strong tenant protections dealing with condominium and cooperative conversions that include plans to assist elderly and low-income renters. Public understanding of these approaches -- on the part of politicians as well as their constituents -- can produce far more relief for troubled tenants than the perpetuation of myths about rent controls.