The Democratic mid-term conference here was a landmark not for what it endorsed but for what it failed to say. A Democratic gathering held at a time of record unemployment, with more than 9 million out of work, failed to endorse a major federal jobs program. It did not demand that the federal government become the employer of last resort. The most the Democrats endorsed was a provision, adopted on a motion by former Americans for Democratic Action national chair Patsy Mink, for a $7.5 billion program to provide 500,000 public works jobs. This is not a new departure: it is reminiscent of the PWA and WPA of the New Deal, and is far less ambitious or expensive than the $12 billion jobs program Edward Kennedy called for at the 1980 Democratic National Convention.

At Philadelphia neither Kennedy nor the other presidential hopefuls made a point of calling for a vast new federal jobs program, nor for any other major expansion of the federal government. National health insurance, a guaranteed annual income, labor law reform--these leftover items from the agenda of the Carter years were rarely mentioned. Rather than endorse a straight-out progressive tax reform, the Democrats advanced a whole raft of tax proposals, some of which they might have denounced as iniquitous a few years ago: "the progressive expenditure tax, the simplified progressive tax, the value-added tax and the flat-rate tax."

Because the Democrats hardly mentioned the kind of proposals to expand government, which seemed to come automatically out of their mouths a few years ago, the Philadelphia conference may some day be seen as a turning point for their party. Since the 1930s, the Democrats have tried to expand the federal government, and often succeeded: from 1930 to 1980, federal spending increased from 3 percent of GNP to 23 percent, and we have built what might be called a makeshift welfare state.

For many years, the Democrats did not have to face the question of how far this process should continue; they were busy overcoming resistance to federal aid for education, Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps. At least some Democrats saw their mission in politics as expanding the federal government indefinitely, so that it could allocate economic resources and guarantee all citizens good jobs, good health care, good housing and good education.

Then, during the Carter years, important programs that would have expanded government--the guaranteed income, health insurance--were rejected by a political process controlled by Democrats.

Now the Democrats seem to have decided where they want to stop. They are correct in saying that their conference was percolating with new ideas. They advanced several tax proposals and plans to encourage economic growth. And they were quick to denounce just about every cut in federal spending made by the Reagan administration; they want to restore old benefits. They want, beyond that, to tinker and change things and make reforms. But none of the changes they propose would make government's role much larger or smaller than it was when they left office in 1980. On the big issues of size and scope of government, the Democrats stand for what was until very recently the status quo.

Although the tone of our political discourse is overwhelmingly negative, such a status quo position may be more defensible than it seems at first. There is every reason to suppose that most Americans want the expansion of the federal government stopped somewhere, and there is reason as well--consider the opposition to cuts in Social Security--that they don't want federal programs cut as much as the Reaganites would like. Our present equilibrium between public and private sectors, even granting our recent economic sluggishness, still produces vast prosperity for a very large number of people on a scale unprecedented in history.

But so far the Democrats are not comfortable with defending the status quo, nor have they developed any overall theme as the Republicans did during the Carter years. They are like an artist who has assembled a lot of tiles but has no design yet for his mosaic. In American politics, the rhetorical advantage has always been with those who advocate change and reform, and the reforms the Democrats championed for years all involved expanding the federal government. Now that the Republicans seem to be the dreamy idealists and the Democrats the practical realists, we will all have to get used to a different way of looking at our politics.