Democratic critics of the administration's Nicaragua policy, with an eye to next year's congressional elections took out insurance Wednesday against the charge that they abandoned Ronald Reagan's "freedom fighters," the contras -- a charge that could have been made because of the legislative foul-up that did in all contra aid in the House voting on April 24. But with an eye to what they perceive as widespread public anxiety over Nicaragua policy, the Democrats will also be able to point to this or that restraint imposed upon the president's freedom to wage "covert" war against the Sandinistas.

The administration will doubtless declare victory on the grounds that something is a whole lot better than nothing, which is what it got on April 24. But the bottom line is that whatever comes out of a joint House-Senate conference is going to be, as a practical matter, mush -- and dangerous mush. It will satisfy nobody, settle nothing. Specifically, the congressional compromise will not give Ronald Reagan what he wants, which is the right and the resources to achieve the only purpose of his policy that makes any sense by its own terms: the outright removal of the Sandinista government.

If it is hard to find an authority in or out of government who believes the Sandinistas can be made to "say uncle" by the measures the administration talks about, it is equally hard to find anybody who thinks the same measures could bring about the overthrow of the Sandinista regime. For just that reason, a number of congressional Democrats are beginning to wonder whether it wouldn't have been wiser to give the administration what it wanted in April.

Why? Because the intensity of the administration's campaign to reverse that adverse outcome has 1)considerably escalated the confrontation with the Sandinistas and 2)provided unsettling insight into how the president responds when the money or congressional authority proves inadequate to his purposes. In the weeks since April 24, the administration has slapped on economic sanctions; raised beyond previous bounds (not to mention credence) the level of its scare talk about the Marxist-Leninist threat to Central America and our borders; castigated its critics as dupes of communist disinformation; and subjected Americans returning from Nicaragua to FBI investigation.

Departing from ritual reassurance that the use of American combat troops is no part of our policy, Secretary of State George Shultz has accused congressional heel- draggers of "hastening the day when a threat will grow and when we will be faced with an agonizing choice about the use of American combat troops." The campaign for the contra money has included hints of other moves short of combat troops if Congress is insufficiently supportive. Among them, according to congressional sources, is a travel ban, aimed particularly at church groups. There's been talk of a break in diplomatic relations, clearing the way for recognition of a contra government-in-exile.

What's important about these speculations is not so much that they will materialize. What's important is that you hear next to nothing else. If the administration is thinking about tempering objectives to fit realistic measures, there's no sign. Still less does one get from the administration any distinction between direct threats to U.S. security (Soviet missiles or MiGs) and the immediate Nicaraguan threat to its neighbors. No allowance appears to have been made for the possibility that each might be handled in different ways, with at least as much promise of success as an attempt to dislodge the Sandinista government by force.