So far, he's proving Lincoln was right. You can fool all of the people some of the time.

Come to think of it, Ronald Reagan brings to mind another great political figure.

Now granted our old leader seems too nice, too charming, too disengaged, too uninformed to resemble that old sophisticated political schemer, Machiavelli. But Reagan and the medieval Italian plotter have something significant in common.

In "The Prince," his great treatise on the art of political leadership, Machiavelli said the successful leader must combine the qualities of the lion and the fox:

"A prince must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those that wish to be only lions do not understand this."

Niccolo Machiavelli's advice, heeded over the centuries, remains a wise and practical prescription for the effective statesman and politician. (Historian James MacGregor Burns borrowed that lion-and-fox analogy as the title for a superb book on Reagan's presumed political idol, Franklin D. Roosevelt.)

Reagan, intentionally or not, has been displaying those lion-and-fox qualities throughout this campaign. He strikes a bold pose and retreats. He wiggles this way and waggles that. He speaks as the harshest of Cold Warriors, jokes aloud about nuclear war and bombing the Russians, rattles sabers, brandishes missiles. He turns around and piously and approvingly quotes Gandhi, the apostle of nonviolence, as his model and invokes the saints as his guide on the path to peace.

His presidential record has been equally confounding.

He has posed as the true fiscal conservative, the only one we've had since Coolidge, claimed to be the archfoe of waste and bloated budgets, promised to slash government spending, balance the budget and produce a surplus by this point in his term and pledged in all ways to get government off our backs.

In fact, he presides over an administration that substantially increases the size of government, demonstrates what real waste means in the Pentagon, and tries to put the heavy hand of Washington into the bedroom and the classroom, while he retires the cup as the all-time champion big spender, the biggest budget-buster of our history, the Babe Ruth of budget deficits, as House Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. aptly and accurately puts it.

Yet it works -- and perhaps because he adapts Machiavelli's method of governance. Certainly in the politics of 1984, at least until tonight's first televised debate with Walter F. Mondale, he has soared above the battle. Quite likely -- again, depending on his and Mondale's two head-to-head TV encounters or unforeseen circumstances -- he will win a great victory a month from now.

But there is a price. It could be costly for him and the country in a second term. And, Machiavelli notwithstanding, the problem lies squarely with his keep-'em-guessing brand of leadership.

I wonder if Ronald Reagan realizes how many people, including many who support him, have doubts about where his leadership is taking the country. I wonder if he understands how often people express concern or bafflement about Reagan's goals for the nation.

Here, for instance, is the kind of concern he would pick up if he were not so isolated from the public. The speaker is an executive with one the largest high-tech electronics companies here in California's stunningly prosperous Silicon Valley:

"I've never understood what his goals were. At least as governor of California, I knew what his main goal was: to leave a budget surplus, which he did. But I don't understand now. He says he's a fiscal conservative and he produces all these deficits. He says one thing and does another. So I'm not sure what his objectives are, what having a mandate from the people means to him. What HAYNES JOHNSON GOALS Our Easygoing President Runs With Machiavellian Shrewdness

SUNNYVALE, Calif. -- So far, he's proving Lincoln was right. You can fool all of the people some of the time.

Come to think of it, Ronald Reagan brings to mind another great political figure.

Now granted our old leader seems too nice, too charming, too disengaged, too uninformed to resemble that old sophisticated political schemer, Machiavelli. But Reagan and the medieval Italian plotter have something significant in common.

In "The Prince," his great treatise on the art of political leadership, Machiavelli said the successful leader must combine the qualities of the lion and the fox:

"A prince must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those that wish to be only lions do not understand this."

Niccolo Machiavelli's advice, heeded over the centuries, remains a wise and practical prescription for the effective statesman and politician. (Historian James MacGregor Burns borrowed that lion-and-fox analogy as the title for a superb book on Reagan's presumed political idol, Franklin D. Roosevelt.)

Reagan, intentionally or not, has been displaying those lion-and-fox qualities throughout this campaign. He strikes a bold pose and retreats. He wiggles this way and waggles that. He speaks as the harshest of Cold Warriors, jokes aloud about nuclear war and bombing the Russians, rattles sabers, brandishes missiles. He turns around and piously and approvingly quotes Gandhi, the apostle of nonviolence, as his model and invokes the saints as his guide on the path to peace.

His presidential record has been equally confounding.

He has posed as the true fiscal conservative, the only one we've had since Coolidge, claimed to be the archfoe of waste and bloated budgets, promised to slash government spending, balance the budget and produce a surplus by this point in his term and pledged in all ways to get government off our backs.

In fact, he presides over an administration that substantially increases the size of government, demonstrates what real waste means in the Pentagon, and tries to put the heavy hand of Washington into the bedroom and the classroom, while he retires the cup as the all-time champion big spender, the biggest budget-buster of our history, the Babe Ruth of budget deficits, as House Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. aptly and accurately puts it.

Yet it works -- and perhaps because he adapts Machiavelli's method of governance. Certainly in the politics of 1984, at least until tonight's first televised debate with Walter F. Mondale, he has soared above the battle. Quite likely -- again, depending on his and Mondale's two head-to-head TV encounters or unforeseen circumstances -- he will win a great victory a month from now.

But there is a price. It could be costly for him and the country in a second term. And, Machiavelli notwithstanding, the problem lies squarely with his keep-'em-guessing brand of leadership.

I wonder if Ronald Reagan realizes how many people, including many who support him, have doubts about where his leadership is taking the country. I wonder if he understands how often people express concern or bafflement about Reagan's goals for the nation.

Here, for instance, is the kind of concern he would pick up if he were not so isolated from the public. The speaker is an executive with one the largest high-tech electronics companies here in California's stunningly prosperous Silicon Valley:

"I've never understood what his goals were. At least as governor of California, I knew what his main goal was: to leave a budget surplus, which he did. But I don't understand now. He says he's a fiscal conservative and he produces all these deficits. He says one thing and does another. So I'm not sure what his objectives are, what having a mandate from the people means to him. What does he want to do with it? And of course he hasn't been open with the public at all in his campaign. I just don't know where he thinks he's going."

That's not an isolated remark. It comes up regularly in conversations with voters, not the least of them Reagan backers. The very nature of his isolated, unspecific, wave-and-a-smile presidential campaign reinforces doubts about how he sees the direction of the nation and what goals he wants to set.

Something else creates unease and potential problems with the public. The strident, harsh ideological rhetoric -- especially from the far right -- that sounded so loud during this political year troubles people. Again, it worries many Reagan supporters.

Repeatedly this year I've heard people who intend to vote for Reagan describe themselves as fiscal conservatives and social liberals. The same is so here. They don't like the injection of religion into the campaign. They don't buy the abortion and school prayer agenda. Here, too, they aren't sure about what Reagan really stands for, or which route he will take in a second term.

In the euphoria of the moment, amid the glow of good times and the hope for even better ones, they are willing to put aside their doubts. They want to believe that the moderate Reagan they see campaigning is the real Reagan -- and the one they will get after 1984.

So it comes down to this: Was Lincoln right? Does it eventually catch up? Is it true you really can't fool all of the people all of the time?

Or can you, Mr. Machiavelli? does he want to do with it? And of course he hasn't been open with the public at all in his campaign. I just don't know where he thinks he's going."

That's not an isolated remark. It comes up regularly in conversations with voters, not the least of them Reagan backers. The very nature of his isolated, unspecific, wave-and-a-smile presidential campaign reinforces doubts about how he sees the direction of the nation and what goals he wants to set.

Something else creates unease and potential problems with the public. The strident, harsh ideological rhetoric -- especially from the far right -- that sounded so loud during this political year troubles people. Again, it worries many Reagan supporters.

Repeatedly this year I've heard people who intend to vote for Reagan describe themselves as fiscal conservatives and social liberals. The same is so here. They don't like the injection of religion into the campaign. They don't buy the abortion and school prayer agenda. Here, too, they aren't sure about what Reagan really stands for, or which route he will take in a second term.

In the euphoria of the moment, amid the glow of good times and the hope for even better ones, they are willing to put aside their doubts. They want to believe that the moderate Reagan they see campaigning is the real Reagan -- and the one they will get after 1984.

So it comes down to this: Was Lincoln right? Does it eventually catch up? Is it true you really can't fool all of the people all of the time?

Or can you, Mr. Machiavelli?