To hear some of Ronald Reagan's critics tell it -- and also some of his political supporters -- this "nice" thing is getting out of hand. Don't we know, comes the complaint from various voices of the opposition, that this civility is a snare and a delusion, a flimsy cover for a program of social cruelty and international madness? Doesn't he know, comes the equally agitated voice of Richard Nixon, that this reciprocation of amiability from the establishment left is a setup, that it is only a matter of time until his gracious new acquaintances savage him? A lot of people seem lonesome for the good old days when Snarl was the official language of Washington.

Why? Because something fundamental has been threatened for many combatants by the administration's remorseless insistence on maintaining rather cherry personal relationships with those opposed to it politically and on the issues. The bonhomie, the apparent absence of a master plan for destroying all "enemies" represent a danger to more than merely the sterotypes of Reagan & Co. that liberal Democrats especially had been carrying around. True, there is no political bereavement quite like the loss of a treasured sterotype, with all the attendant burden of thinking again that this entails. But there is something else that has animated our politics over the past couple of decades, which is alos at risk: the evident need to believe that bad ideas, or what you may regard as bad ideas at any given moment, are necessarily the handiwork of personally bad, morally monstrous, no-damn-good people.

It is of course true that all across our political spectrum -- from the indifference of some to plight of the victims of crime to the indifference of others to the plight of the working poor -- unconscious, insensitive political cruelty is generated by people who think they are doing something else -- usually something socially benign. Liberals are shocked when you accuse them of this, conservatives indignant. For they know they are not the beasts of the other side's imagination. Yet for some reason it seems essential to many of them to believe that their opposite numbers are.

To think this way, I suppose, reinforces one's sense of the correctness of his own position. It saves a lot of intellectual wear and tear. How are you going to explain what is wrong with a policy or an idea put forward by someone who seems to be a nice-enough guy? If he is "nice," how can he think these terrible things? You're going to have to argue your case, rather than merely assert it. You may even -- dare I say it? -- be wrong. How much easier to prevail when you can discredit the person along with the policy.

This, over the years, has tempted many. An exquisite refinement of the process has been the insistence not only on abusing the opposition personally, but also on being personally abused by it in return -- if only in imagination. "I realize this may get me accused of being a communist, pinko, fag," people will sneer -- who are not being accused of any of the above in Reagan's Washington, except in their own fantasy of oppression.

On the other side, among some of those who favor the administration but are not in its innermost circle, a comparable bafflement and nostalgia for the days of us-against-them combat is apparent. Partly this is just slowness in acknowledging on the part of the "ins" that they are "in" and that railing against the dark forces of liberalism (who are out) does not explain what is not going well within the adminstration. The truly ominous (from the administration's point of view) resistance to the president's economic assumptions exists among some of the most influential members of his own party. Likewise, the bashing about that Alexander Haig got, first in connection with Vice President George Bush and the crises-management business and then on the day of the Reagan shooting, was not, as some of the pro-Reagan faithful wished to believe, nothing but the dirty work of well-placed liberals.

It was said, for instance, to have been "the media" that gave the secretary of state so much trouble, but whereas the press certainly make a lot of what happened, the truth is Haig was being stalked in the press by a number of high-ups in the administration. It is almost as convenient and certainly as much fun to blame a liberal press for what goes wrong in Washington as it is to announce that you are about to be slandered and abused by the "McCarthyite" people who are now in political power. But that is all play. Reagan and his administration have made the picture and the analysis harder than that. a

Interestingly, Haig himself gives the appearance of being a man out of tune with the administration temperament. He seems so tightly wound, so ready for assault, so committed to a good guys/bad guys confrontation compared with this smiling, tough, secure crowd. He seems habitually tempted, anyhow, to play the game as it was played in pre-Reagan Washington.

I don't see how anyone could miss that old misery. And precisely because I suspect there will be, must be, tremendous disagreements and political fights ahead concerning much of the Reagan program, it seems to me vital to preserve the ease of communication and lack of personal animus that have marked the administration's way of doing things so far. Is it wholly unfair of me to observe that the determination to proceed in a contrary manner, to re-create the political opponent as a worthless person or an enemy, encourages crazy gunplay of the kind we have seen again and again in our time? Actually, you don't need to get that dramatic: Jimmy Carter, wherever he may be, demonstrated the unprofitability of painting the Reagan people as monsters -- as distinct from having a good argument with them.

What an irony it is that this president, forceful decades-long campaigner against the ways of Washington, has appropriated one of the capital's most suspect if recently out-of-fashion habits: cozying up to the opposition, refusing to personalize his quarrels. I think it will be a mistake at every level -- personal and political -- if a society that has paid the price for doing it the other way rejects his offer now.