There's something tricky going on with all these budget cuts.

On the surface, what's happening is this: President Reagan told David Stockman to cut government spending without touching defense or Social Security. Stockman, dutifully complying, came up with a list that somehow has leaked out. Everyone in Congress thinks it is horrifying because it devastates every program with an influential middle-class constituency (except, of course, defense and Social Security). Stockman briefed Reagan on these cuts. Reagan is thinking about it.

This story is too pat to be taken at face value. It's well known, first of all, that Stockman himself wants to cut defense and Social Security -- he drew up plans to cut both way back in 1981 -- and that he does not respond to Reagan's every suggestion with lapdog- like compliance, burying forever his own views.

Second, it's obviously Stockman (or "sources close to" him) who's leaking the cuts. Think about it: If you sincerely wanted to eliminate Urban Development Action Grants and Amtrak subsidies, would it be such a good idea to announce your intentions months in advance, so that all the interest groups would have plenty of time to mount campaigns to foil your efforts? Has Stockman, always dazzlingly intelligent, suddenly turned dumb?

A careful reading of the "Budget Officials Ponder Cuts" stories reveals an underlying tone of "Okay, Mr. President, if that's what you really want, that's what we'll give you (tee hee)." In other words, the reason all hell is breaking loose about the cuts might just be that Stockman intended for all hell to break loose.

It might be that he wants to prove to Reagan that he really does have to think about raising taxes or cutting defense or Social Security, and that he is doing so with a graphic demonstration of the political impossibility of getting the deficit down any other way. The uproar plays right into his hands. It was a tipoff as to the real nature of his game that he didn't leak any cuts in poverty programs; only the things that make congressmen break out in a cold sweat were on his list.

At least through 1981, we know from his writings, Stockman hated with a righteous passion all these programs he is now proposing to cut. "Once things are allocated by political muscle, by regional claims," he said in William Greider's Atlantic article, "there are no longer idea- based agendas." Every one of the programs now on his scare list was targeted in his original set of budget cuts, "America's New Beginning," that was going to spread the pain of austerity equally around the whole society and begin an era in which government spending would be determined by national needs, not constituencies' demands.

As everybody knows, it turned out then that the pain was not shared equally; the people who could put political muscle behind their "weak claims" largely saved their programs. So what does Stockman think now? Surely he can't have come to believe truly in the merits of farm subsidies and the Export-Import Bank. But it may well be that what he saw in 1981 gave birth to a willingness in him to stop fighting those programs' powerful constituencies and to use them instead, somewhat cynically, to help him force his other goals into reality. An element of the cynicism might be that he knows Reagan lacks the fire to take on the programs and will look for another way out of the budget mess. If that is indeed the trap he has set, the interest groups, Congress and the press have walked right into it.

It would be a shame, though, if by playing Attila the Hun Stockman has made his old desire to cut those programs appear loony. Then his worst nightmares of a few years ago will have come true: We will have wrung out every program that was in the budget just because we thought it was right, and spared every one that also had the aspect of a payoff to people with the clout to unseat congressmen. And having put the budget perfectly in tune with political power, it will be very difficult to reform it in the future. And the billows of smoke emanating from the Office of Management and Budget will have prevented respectable opinion from seeing that this has happened.

There is one other possible interpretation of Stockman's game, in which he is no less tricky but in closer touch with his old ideals. He might be proposing the complete abolition of programs in order to allow Reagan to play the reasonable man and merely cut them by a third or half -- the old good-cop/bad-cop routine. Then presumably the interest groups would kiss the ground in gratitude and Stockman wuld smile to himself, the fondest dreams of his hot youth having at last come partly true.