You can hardly blame the Reagan administration for trying to snatch victory for "democracy" and "peace" out of the jaws of defeat in the El Salvadoran elections. The size of the turnout was a moving cry from the heart for peace, law and order and, yes, "democracy." The question remains whether it is wise to try to snatch from this turnout a victory for President Jos,e Napoleon Duarte and his Christian Deomcrats as well.

American influence behind the scenes undoubtedly can bring off some sort of "government of national unity" with the Christian Democrats serving once again as its fig leaf of respectability. But this is precisely the wrong base from which to try to reach out to moderate and noncommunist leftists in El Salvador in a search for a negotiated settlement of the war. It is unsound because it confuses the one decipherable message of the turnout with the practical effect of the outcome. That is the cruel irony of the election arithmetic. If the returns are to be read literally, almost two out of three voters see their "democratic" salvation in a transfer of power from the Christian Democrats to an amalgamation of right-wing extremist forces historically associated with the absolute antithesis of democracy.

True, Duarte & Co. won a plurality (35.5 percent of the vote, by latest count and 24 Constituent Assembly seats). But a majority of the 60 seats was won, in combination, by the six-month-old ARENA party of Roberto d'Aubuisson (25.7 percent of the votes and 19 seats) and the Nationalist Conciliation Party (16.7 percent of the vote and 14 seats). Two tiny parties, also far to the right, won the remaining three seats.

The former ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, may not be an entirely dispassionate witness, having been rudely relieved of his duties by the Reagan crowd. But he has the germ of what might be a good idea: a boycott by Duarte and the Christian Democrats of any new government, pending the presidential elections that the newly elected assembly is supposed to arrange for next year. White argues that this would free the Christian Democrats to rebuild and broaden their party, without the taint of association with extemists on the right. It would also help break the United States away from its traditional proconsul role. It would leave to Salvadorans responsibility for whatever interim government can be stitched together in the name of "unity." The result, in any case, is likely to leave power largely with the right and with such military strongmen as the present defense minister, Gen. Jos,e Guillermo Garcia.

Standing back a little, the United States could then deal government-to-government, using its economic/military aid leverage, not for internal finagling but as enforcer of perfectly reasonable preconditions to American support: early elections, no backsliding on reforms; a clampdown on repression sufficient, at least, to meet congressional tests. It's a gamble, surely. But so is the effort to persuade the right-wing majority to give the Christian Democrats anything other than a cosmetic--and compromising--piece of action.