There is more than a "dime's worth of difference" between the Democratic and Republican parties. I felt that way throughout my years as an elected public official in the Texas state senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. I still feel that way. But I am troubled. I am troubled by what appears to be a developing tendency by Democrats to become apologetic about our past. Democrats owe no apology for the policies we have espoused. Our policies mirrored the fundamental values which have always defined America --equality of opportunity, economic and social justice for all, civil and human rights, the inclusion of all as participants in the affairs of governing. Such values are at the core of this country and at the core of the Democratic Party.

The elections of November 1980 shocked and startled many Democrats. Many felt that the results were a rejection of Democratic Party policies by a majority of the American electorate. I do not share that view. The message of November 1980 was not a rejection of policy but a rejection of poor program management. The voters were telling the Democrats, "you let your house get out of control. There is too much abuse and waste. We want better management." It will be a mistake for the Democratic Party to view the voters' call for efficiency as a call for dismantling.

The Democratic Party does not fear government. We see the need for government to be an active participant in the affairs of the governed. This is a salient distinguishing feature between the Democratic and Republican parties. We believe that it is possible to form a compatible working relationship/partnership with government to get things done for and on behalf of people. This must not be confused with a desire to have government control our daily lives. It is simply a recognition that there are some things which government must do and that a public- private partnership is necessary to do them. Examples of areas in which the government must be involved include the economy, preservation of a habitable environment and restoration of the public infrastructure, i.e. all of those things necessary to support our life and work.

It is painful to see Democrats try to increase the space between themselves and their natural constituency. But it appears to me, an observer three years out of the government, that this is happening. Blue- collar workers and ethnic minorities are a part of the natural constituencies of the Democratic Party. This alliance was formed because of the party's belief that an essential fairness and equity must be a non-negotiable ingredient of all its policies and programs. Fairness and equity are not issues that will tolerate political posturing. This natural constituency can be a viable force in the electorate if the Democratic Party gives it some reason for its loyalty and support. "Me-tooism" with the Republicans is no reason.

We all recently viewed with varying degrees of disbelief attempts by the House of Representatives to reach a budget compromise. These efforts evoked cries of a plague on both their houses by Republicans and Democrats. No values appeared to be sacred. I believe in compromise as a practicable political process. But compromise should be sought on the highest ground of common consensus, not the lowest common denominator of political practicableness. The public has a sense of the rightness of things and can be trusted to suport what is right.

The future of the Democratic Party does not lie in its becoming a clone of the Republican Party. It is different and its strength lies in that difference. It must assess the needs of the people and the state. Then it must offer policies and programs to meet those needs. The future of the Democratic Party does not lie in a benign spectator role, lying in wait for the Republicans to fail.

If the Democrats are to return to power, it must be on the strength, credibility and unquestioned relatedness of their ideas and on the quality of the people prepared to implement them. Empty rhetoric is easy; substantive proposals for problem- solving are difficult. If the Democrats are to win, we must be prepared to present clear alternatives for problem resolution.

This is not a time to devalue America's vital core but a time for restatement and reaffirmation of that core. The American people do not fear the future but welcome it. Our deep desire is for leadership--leadership which conserves our present value system but is willing to risk failure in its effort to achieve the common good. Politicians may be able to provide this leadership if they are not paralyzed by election- year cannibalism. More is required than jockeying for political advantage or latching on to the latest popular political cause. The people will be able to assess accurately the sincerity of the politicians' positions.

The Democrats will meet in mini-convention or conference or whatever. Many don't really want anything to happen. Something must happen, or we may expect a replay of November 1980.

May the Democrats convince us that the party is not over! The writer is Lyndon B. Johnson public service professor at the University of Texas in Austin.