We live right next door to Maryland, here in the nation's capital, and follow its tumultuous affairs with awe. I have long thought, as a matter of fact, that through the agency of Maryland politics -- Spiro Agnew, Marvin Mandrel, Bob Bauman, Joe Staszak et al. -- the Almighty was surely trying to tell us something.

But what? That swift retribution will be visited upon the politican who makes off with more than is customary or who is sanctimonious and unforgiving beyond reason? Well, maybe. But my hunch is that the absolutely amazing characters who cavort periodically on the Maryland political stage -- as distinct from its classact politicians like Mikulski and Mathias -- were put there less to demonstrate the existence of divine justice than to show us where we are in the political affairs of man at any given moment. As Maryland goes (even when it seemed to be going mostly out of office and on to jail), so goes the nation sooner or later. Maryland is the trend-setter, a parable of politics in our time.

All this is what makes the current angry swirl around the campaign to unseat Maryland's Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes so interesting and revealing. But more on that in a moment. First I need to establish the kind of trend-setting I'm talking about, and also there are probably those who need to be told who the late Joe Staszak was. He was the Baltimore tavern owner and state senator who took conflict-of-interest doctrine to new heights in the course of working tirelessly in the Senate for legislation that would help his own liquor business. When asked whether such efforts did not in fact constitute a conflict of interest, Staszak replied in wonderment: "How does this conflict with my interest?"

The Staszak doctrine, promulgated as the 1970s got under way, suited the times -- a kind of aimlessly arrogant scramble for spoils that was soon to come to grief. Maryland had, in Spiro Agnew, its own microcosm of the larger trend: The politician who had moved from the stuffy middle to the strident right, who became the most fashionable of the scourges of the antiwar left and other disturbers of the peace, and who then ran afoul of the law and order he had been professing to worship and defend in his endless speeches. Agnew was an early draftee in the army of politicians who were to leave office in the 1970s in some stage of disgrace.

Maryland, as we know, however, hardly had a corner on this: the indictments were truly national in scope, and the roundup goes on. But the money scams almost seem old hat by now. More recently -- and we shall merely nod here toward the Bob Bauman episode and move quickly on -- the fashion seems to have run to various personal weaknesses and squalors, indulged in by those most tolerant of them in others, and converted, hideously, into public confession-and-comeback stories. Revelation and repentance by talk show: it is the latest thing.

Now, the Paul Sarbanes matter is not nearly so thrill-packed as any of this. The events that have caused all the fury are these: Sen. Sarbanes -- a Princeton graduate, Oxford Rhodes scholar, Harvard lawyer, former House member and devoted liberal who is finishing a first term in the Senate -- has been penciled in for extinction at the polls in 1982 by the National Conservative Political Action Committee, otherwise known as NCPAC. NCPAC had plenty to do with dislodging many other liberal senators last fall in campaigns that were very rough. This year's 18-months-in-advance targeting of Sarbanes by a kind of free-floating, non-Maryland group has caused great consternation among Sarbanes's friends and supporters who think it is a pretty rotten thing to start up such a campaign and to conduct it in the way that NCPAC is doing.

There is, to be sure, a certain grim irony in the fact that the political-action committee, an instrumentality that is under much criticism itself these days as a malign influence in our politics, was the product of a season of legislative campaign reform. But the real irony -- and point -- to me of the complaints about the attack on Sarbanes (a counter-PAC has been formed to defend him and other prospective victims of NCPAC) is the nature of the complaints themselves. I am no fan or defender of NCPAC. tYet I have studied the NCPAC attacks on Sarbans, which have been characterized as sinister and scurrilous, and come away stunned. You know what they say?

They say he is a liberal Democrat.

OK -- they put it in fairly screamy terms and, employing an ancient political trick, they present a melange of figures and assertions that, s stripped of context, are hard to verify and that look (some of them) pretty fishy. But, by what I take to have been NCPAC's standards in last fall's campaigns -- at least as I read about them -- and compared with earlier assaults on those seeking the job, NCPAC's effort has been so far remarkably tame.

Just a little over 10 years ago, one of Sarbane's Democratic predeccessors in the U.S. Senate, Joseph Tydings, was savaged in an ad by a group called the Committee for a Responsible Congress. The "radicals" and "extremists," it said, needed Tydings in the Senate because he was "easy on crime" and wanted to "tear down America," and he was a man who "encourages student violence" while "plotting to obstruct the president." He was associated with hard drugs, looters, "surrender" diplomacy and the rest. Truly ugly stuff. Only a generation before, in the fall of 1950, Tyding's father, Millard, also a senator, had been defeated at the end of a genuinely scurrilous campaign, one that featured a famous doctored photograph of the senior Sen. Tydings in "the company" of Communist leader Earl Browder.

I don't miss any of that. I don't give NCPAC credit for being less obnoxious. I don't credit for being less obnoxious. I don't vouch for what turns their campaign yet may take. I state it merely as an arresting fact that this year in Maryland, mother of trends and lighter of the way, it seems to have been decided that calling a fellow a big-program, big-spending liberal is the worst thing you can do to him. Something like that seemed to be at work in the Congress last week, too. The Democrats have big trouble.