In Tampa last week, speaking to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, President Reagan was careful to mention an agency his administration has not always favored, the Small Business Administration, "which has as its deputy administrator Eddie Herrera." He went on, in expansive language reminiscent of Hubert Humphrey's, to call for a doubling of "the number of businesses owned by Americans of Hispanic descent." The next day, in El Paso, speaking to the American GI Forum, he called for "effective bilingual education," neglecting to add, as Vice President Bush did recently, that such programs should phase students "into the English- speaking mainstream"--the opposite of what "bilingual education" usually means in political shorthand. Moving on to La Paz, Mexico, to meet with Mexican President de la Madrid, Mr. Reagan stressed his administration's efforts to help Mexico solve its economic problems.

From all this the impression begins to grow of a Walter F. Reagan--a president who is ready, as his Democratic rival sometimes seem to be, to promise any group anything it wants and to sound any theme it wants to hear. The impression, we should add, is not quite accurate in the case of Mr. Reagan, or for that matter of Mr. Mondale either. The president's interest in Mexican and Latin American affairs is not recent, nor is his record of positive accomplishment in these areas barren. He has been speaking about the need for more cooperation with our southern neighbors for years; he brought forward the Caribbean Basin Initiative (unfortunately diluted by Congress), and his administration moved quickly and ably to help Mexico avoid financial disaster last summer. The administration's abandonment of the Carter administration's bilingual education program and adoption of more flexible federal standards was a positive step in a nation where success and advancement will always depend on a knowledge of English.

Mr. Reagan offers a vision of Hispanics as advancing largely through their own efforts, assisted by a government that produces prosperity and provides educational opportunity. But he undermines the force of that vision when he uses the labels of programs he has opposed ("bilingual education") and when he seems to be promising little goodies from government for everyone who has a problem--even the U.S. border communities that have lost retail sales since the Mexican peso collapsed. The president's speaking schedule this past week thus comes to seem nothing more than a crass appeal for the votes of yet another segment of the electorate. It can't be doing him any long-range good.