Like baseball, politics can sometimes be a game of inches. In 1976, when nearly 82 million Americans voted for president, a switch of choice by only 5,539 Ohioans and 7,233 Mississippians would have added up to a full four-year term for president Gerald Ford.

Frequently, the numbers involved are even smaller than those. Like 22. That's the number of House Democrats who, if they had stuck with their party leadership last August and not supported the Republican tax bill, would have prevented enactment of the full Reagan economic recovery program. That probably would have been followed by passage of the Democratic tax bill, then, and President Reagan's ability, now, to blame all 1982 economic ills on the House Democratic majority that had sabotaged his program. Unfortunately for the Republicans, it didn't happen that way. The administration, thanks to the 22 Democrats, got virtually everything it asked for and something else: responsibility for the national economy.

Aesop, who never sat on the Ways and Means Committee, once wrote of legislative programs and other matters: "We would often be sorry if our wishes were granted." One of the more hazardous successes for any elected executive is to receive from the legislature all that the executive has requested. The truly shrewd executive always asks the legislators for more than they will grant. That way, when nirvana is not attained by the following Tuesday, the executive retains the option of pointing to the key unpassed elements of the comprehensive program.

Just as President Reagan last August expressed publicly his gratitude to the mostly southern Democrats who broke party ranks to support his budget and tax bills, it may well be the non-southern House Democrats next November who will be privately thanking their maverick "boll weevil" colleagues.

Because the Democratic House leadership and most of the membership fought the White House gamely on the tax and budget cuts and lost, nobody can credibly accuse the House Democrats of "taking a dive" in 1981. Because the president's entire economic recovery program was through Congress in just six months, nobody can believably charge the congressional Democrats with delay or obstruction. And because the boll weevils supported the president's program and not the Democratic alternative, all Democrats might be standing in the tall cotton come next autumn. A big problem for the Republicans in 1982 could be that they were too successful in Congress in 1981.

There is no suggestion here that the southern Democrats who did vote for the Regan program last year were clairvoyant "moles" who infiltrated the opposition with the intention of transferring to the GOP the dread economic accountability. Yes, of course, it's true that Rep. Phil Gramm (D- Tex.) was a college economics professor and that many in that profession, it seems, are quite liberal. But all evidence suggests that Gramm is a believing and practicing supply-sider.

To some, the whole thing may now appear just too clever not to have been planned in some smoke-filled room in a Democratic clubhouse where asphalt contracts were being awarded to the deserving. But the whole thing, upon examination, looks to be on the level. The Boll Weevils were apparently sincere in supporting the president in 1981. It simply turned out that, in so doing, they may have helped save their party in 1982.