"If a man were permitted to make all the ballads," said Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, "he need not care who should make the laws of a nation." f

That was back in 1704. If Fletcher were around today, he might put it another way: "Let me write the slogans, and the laws will take care of themselves."

Sometimes it seems that the country's major political clashes are over words rather than realities. The battle-cry of recent years might well be: my slogan's better than yours.

Political positions that, on their merits, might not enjoy anything approaching consensus, can, with the right slogans, command a clear majority. The battles that occupy us are waged with slogans, not concrete proposals, and right now the conservatives appear to be winning a lot of them.

Take the abortion controversy. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll asked respondents whether they agreed with the "right-to-life" advocates. Some 51 percent of those who said they had heard of "right to life" said they agreed with its position on abortion. A subsequent question, however, dealt with specific circumstances surrounding abortion, and this time 19 percent of these same respondents said they agreed with abortion on demand, and 35 percent expressed only some reservations about abortion. Only 16 percent said they would not approve of abortion under any circumstance.

They may have had trouble with "right to life" as a legislative program, but as a slogan they found it irresistible. If the battle over abortion remains undecided, it is because the other side also has a pretty good slogan: pro-choice, a formulation that evokes the American traditions of freedom and individuality. If they had made the error of calling their position "pro-abortion," they would have lost the fight long ago. c

Even a matter as seemingly unarguable as the right of workers to organize remains controversial primarily because the other side has the better slogan: "right to work."

"Affirmative action," for all the arguments that can be arrayed in its support, is a phrase without emotional impact. Its meaning comes entirely from its objectives. Its appeal depends on the perceptions of unfairness based on an assessment of what in fact is happening. In other words, you have to think about it.

"Reverse discrimination," on the other hand, is a slogan that can go directly to the gut without ever passing through the brain. Even the most obvious victims of race or sex bias would be reluctant to describe themselves as favoring "reverse discrimination."

Perhaps the best recent example of conservative sloganeering -- one that the liberals have yet to counter -- is "Moral Majority." No matter that its partisans do not constitute a political majority or that many of the policies and programs they advocate would, viewed individually, strike a lot of observers as essentially immoral. The magic is in the phrase itself, which, because it says nothing, evokes whatever hopes and fears lurk in the mind of the hearer.

Sometimes the slogans appeal directly to common fears and prejudices. Liberals have never been able to come up with a slogan to combat such phrases as "law and order" or "crime in the streets" or "the rights of the victims of crime." And now presidential counselor Ed Meese has come up with a powerful new phrase, branding such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union "a lobby for criminals."

Not all apparently felicitous slogans are effective at all times and in all places. "States' rights," for instance, never caught on outside the South. It simply had no appeal for non-southerners who, in general, were not unhappy with the federal government's efforts to outlaw racial discrimination in an area they tended to view as backward.

But the same old idea is enjoying a strong comeback now under the rubric of "getting the government off our backs." The subtle difference is that anyone who has ever paid federal income taxes or come face-to-face with a silly government regulation can be made to see the government as the enemy of common sense and the common good.

Liberals are spending a lot of time these days wondering whether their old ideas and programs are outdated. They might be better advised to spend the time clothing their old ideas in attractive new slogans.