I am beginning to feel like Jonah. Since Aug. 20, when I began my mid-term election reporting, clear across the country in Portland, Maine, I have been in a dozen states. In every state, no matter how few days' the visit, there has been news of freshly ordered layoffs. It has gotten to the point that even this newsprint junkie almost hates to open the paper.

The latest such news was particularly poignant. On the front page of the Oregonian last Saturday was the announcement that Montgomery Ward was shutting down its catalogue distribution center, adding 500 people to the jobless rolls. The 61-year-old store was as much a fixture here as the "Monkey Ward" catalogue is in American homes. But the executive who announced the news said they had been losing money for 18 months, forcing this operation to be merged into those in Oakland and Denver.

A salesman at the store told the Oregonian he was "shocked, but not surprised." All of us have become accustomed to seeing such pillars of the American economy as Montgomery Ward, U.S. Steel, Ford and International Harvester staggered by the economic downturn.

This economic crisis is now the fodder of political debate. From the podium of the White House East Room to the labor hall in Medford, Oregon, politicians are pointing at the other guys and saying, "They did it. It wasn't my fault."

That's fine for campaign purposes, but it is now evident that there is an economic mess to be cleaned up starting on Nov. 3, no matter what the previous day's results may be. So we'd better make an effort to understand how we got here.

The roots of our economic problem go back at least as far as the OPEC oil shock of the '70s, and probably beyond that to the fateful decision by Lyndon Johnson to finance the Great Society and the Vietnam War by deficit spending, not higher taxes. That unleashed the great inflation, which dried up productive investment. The inflation was checked only temporarily by the short-term wage-price controls of the Nixon administration and by the jawboning of the Ford and Carter administrations.

Finally, late in 1979, the Federal Reserve Board instituted the "tight money" policy that, two years later under President Reagan, broke the back of inflation. The cost of that policy has been a deliberate slowdown of economic activity and a rise in unemployment and bankruptcies.

Ronald Reagan is right when he says that he inherited a sick economy from his predecessor, one with disastrous interest rates and other symptoms of severe illness. But when he denies that the Federal Reserve's monetary policy he has supported as a cure for inflation has had the inevitable consequence of causing unemployment, he tests credulity.

Until very recently, the political debate has centered, not on this monetary policy, but on the tax and budget policies directly under control of Congress and the president.

Reagan and the Republicans have largely had their way in these areas, and the responsibility is theirs. The Republicans instituted the large-scale tax cuts. They insisted on defense increases that offset the domestic savings. The effect was to increase the deficits and worsen the overall economic picture.

The tax cuts were sold mainly on the grounds that they would stimulate investment and invigorate the economy. They have signally failed to do so.

The tax and budget policies were called dangerous by many Democrats from the beginning, and their failure was recognized as early as last January by most Senate Republicans. They pushed the president into the U-turn of a deficit- reducing tax increase in August. For that, the GOP--if not Reagan--deserves credit.

The Democrats' has been mixed. In the House in 1981, they offered an alternative budget with smaller tax cuts and smaller deficits. But while some of them resisted excessive tax cuts, others entered gladly into the bidding war that produced the grossly exaggerated tax bill of 1981. As a party, the Democrats were no more resistant than the Republicans to the extraordinary inflation of defense spending that Reagan demanded. On crucial votes in the House, the one part of the federal government they controlled, the Democratic leadership was unable to maintain the cohesion in party ranks to challenge Reagan's program.

This history has left us as voters in an unhappy position. We cannot change governments in this election. We can only improve the government we have by electing men and women of both parties who are prepared to deal realistically with the grim situation we face. Every day's news makes it clear there is little time to waste.