ACCORDING TO the political folklore of 1980, the money and energy expended by conservative political action committees (PACs) p roved decisive in the defeat of key Democratic Senate and House incumbents. Those Democrats who survived have already begun running scared for 1982 and 1984 races.

During the past half-decade, corporate-trade and conservative "idea" PACs have overshadowed the previously dominant labor PACs associated with the AFL-CIO and with independent unions. For that reason alone, a growing number of Democrats and independent liberals now have begun efforts to tilt the balanced of PAC power back toward the center-left. The argue essentially that, despite the nonpartisan fig leaf required of PACs by law, Republicans in 1980 feasted on the additional campaign rations provided by their PACs while Democrats fasted.

The early birds now organizing their personal PACs include all three major unannounced candidates for the 1984 Democratic nomination: Brown, Kennedy and Mondale. Supporters of the trio recognize the role played the PACs in mobilizing loyalists at an early stage not only for Ronald Reagan but also for his less successful competitors for the 1980 Republican nomination. Meanwhile, House Democrats, fearful of a Republican takeover in 1982, have rallied behind a new PAC called Independent Action, and George McGovern -- himself a victim of savage attacks by conservative PACs in 1980 -- has begun organizing another counterpart on the left called Americans for Common Sense.

Obviously, money remains a serious problem for the Democrats in future races. Even in 1979-80, as a recent story by Morton Mintz showed, three Republican campaign committees collected over $108.9 million compared with $18.7 million collected by their Democratic counterparts. In a tribute to the power of imcumbency, however, PACs contributed $2.4 million to the Democratic campaign committees and only $1.4 million to the Republican groups. Those percentages will undoubtedly be reversed by 1982.

By focusing public attention at this early stage in the next campaign on their efforts to capitalize -- in every sense -- on PAC fund-raising, the Democrats may have missed the mark, however. For one thing, the figures on official Republican fund-raising (which, when added to the Democratic national total, slightly exceeds the total PAC rake-in of $127.3 million) suggests a different view of 1980 from the hard-sell arguments offered by groups such as the National Conservative Political Action Committee.

The real lesson of 1980 may not be the importance of the PACs but, rather, the importance of the type of party renewal systematically undertaken by Bill Brock and his colleagues in the wake of Watergate: fund-raising, of course, but also careful candidate selection and a stress on identifying imaginative policies, many of which were then debated in a lively manner in the pages of the Republicans' journal, Common Sense. Despite the self-promotion of spokesmen for conservative PACs, subsequent studies of the 1980 election may demonstrate that the revival of partisan Republicanism -- plus Ronald Reagan -- proved more important in determining key House races than PAC money and vitriol.

First impressions die hard, however, and some Democrats seem more interested at this point in exploiting the instrument of the PACs than in bringing them under control through additional campaign reform legislation. The talk centers mainly on the new political technology that PAC money will presumably make more readily available to Democrats: computer banks, media and public opinion analysts, specialized polling and the like.

All this will be needed if the Democrats are to remain competitive in the 1980s, of course, but money alone did not defeat them in 1980. Nor will it resurrect them. No part that remains essentially barren of fresh ideas and programs will return to national power on the strength of the PACs. The new chairman of the national Democratic Party should begin by studying carefully the policies the Republicans followed in creating a structure for party revival during the mid-1970s. Otherwise, the mystique of the PACs will continue to spread, and undeservedly so.