We softheaded, free-lunch liberals are running out of patience. I know we're not supposed to. Born under the sign of the Bleeding Heart, we are actually meant to have an inexhaustible supply of both patience and compassion, in directly inverse proportion to our smarts. But I say enough is enough. I am referring to this summer's discovery by large numbers of Ronald Reagan's constituents that he and his government aren't conservative after all.

What has this got to do with us? Everything. By my count, this will be the third time in recent years that our rout by the forces of reaction, much hailed and gloated over in the right-wing press, has been called off in mid-massacre. There we are, the thousands of extras in the Reagan extravaganza, painted up like 1930s M-G-M Indians, strewn half-dead across the valley as the agents of justice ride triumphantly over our deservedly crumpled frames, when -- yet again -- someone has called out: "Cut, Manny. I don't like it."

This time of course it is Reagan who has been pronounced unfit for the leading part. But before that it was Ford and before that Nixon. So the truth is that this has been going on for the past decade and a half. Year in, year out, we condemned ones just sit there, compliantly writing book reviews about our own imminent demise. There are white backlashes and Middle American vengeances and silent majorities and real majorities and sun belts and God knows what all else waiting out there to get us. But each time they get a leader and it seems about to happen, our antagonists start hassling among themselves because this leader, too (or so we are told), has either got cold feet or had a change of heart or both. Another reprieve -- while the overwhelming evidence of our coming doom continues to pile up further. Is it any wonder that America's liberals are so notoriously soft on the inhabitants of death row? Politically, we live there ourselves.

In the term "liberals," I am now, of course, obliged to include practically everyone in the country. That is the amazing part of the phenomenon. Tired and used-up old liberalism doesn't need to do anything about its own disgraceful ideological flab to increase its number. It need only loll about there, receiving the new members regularly consigned to it by an angry, disenchanted right. To the trilateralists and the Eastern Seaboard bankers and the Hon. George Bush and most of the Reagan Cabinet and White House staff may now be added Ronald Reagan himself along with Bob Dole and -- kind of -- Lyn Nofziger. Do you think Fritz Mondale could have achieved any of this by himself?

All right -- it will strike you as a joke, this consigning of Reagan and his crew to the dismal and disorganized ranks of the left. But it is serious, too, in that some serious people within the Reagan constituency are expressing the disenchantment; and the recurrence of the pattern over the years must mean something. In the Nixon administration, the break came over the president's heretical imposition of wage-and-price controls and his breaking of the taboo on dealing with mainland China. In the Ford administration, it was mainly the elaboration of the Nixon-Kissinger "detente" in such forms as the SALT II negotiations and the Helsinki accords, which critics said legitimated Soviet control of Eastern Europe. It is forgotten now that Ford had a close squeak getting nominated in 1976 and that there was great suspense at the convention over whether Henry Kissinger (1) would dare to appear and, (2) if he did, would be booed.

The big fireworks over Reagan's alleged betrayal of the cause have come in connecton with his all-out effort to pass the 1982 tax bill and his decision to inhibit the sale of American weapons to Taiwan. But there was plenty going on before that. Reagan's response to the suppression of Polish solidarity was considered inadequate, as was his aggressiveness in behalf of his pre-election program -- budget cuts, tough dealing with Cuba, dismantling of the liberal legacy and so on. The wrong people (his campaign intellectuals and zealots) left office early, just as the wrong people (the accommodators and establishment types) stayed on, gaining more and more influence. At least this was the perception that led to the present grief.

I know that there is something involved here that is experienced by all governments: the distress of the supercommitted when they learn that the person they fought so long and so hard to get into office can't begin to do all those things they (and he) thought would be so overnight-easy and so smart. But the conservative Republicans do seem to work the psychology of disillusionment overtime. Henry Kissinger, who is now being rehabilitated by the critics on the Reagan administration's right, was, during his time in office, widely regarded by them as the Svengali of both Ford and Nixon. The great muttering at that time was that Kissinger was deluding his gullible White House bosses and deranging their conservative plans. This time around the forces of darkness are known as Baker-Darman or Darman-Baker, a composite beast with a wonderful Darth Vader resonance to it that is said to have captured and completely bewitched the president.

At the risk of blowing my liberal cover, I will say that this is about as plausible to me as the theory that the Soviet military has, over the past 15 years, bullied and tricked a reluctant Soviet civilian leadership into buying all those terrible weapons. Can anyone really believe that James A. Baker III and Richard Darman, powerful White House aides that they are, have systematically misinformed and manipulated a helpless Ronald Reagan into committing all of the crimes included in the right-wing indictment? Could anyone watch the way the president came on in his sale of the tax bill and still think that?

I think it is a cop-out. I don't care if the Republicans nominate a Thatcher-Pinochet ticket next time, they'll be having the same problems 18 months into the term. My own primitive instinct is that Ronald Reagan is a real conservative and that he is trying to tell them something. On the off chance they will listen, I'm going home to dress for the next massacre.