What is President Reagan doing to his Philippines policy? Ten days ago he made a ringing assertion of the centrality of elections, and conditioned aid on electoral fairness and a fresh commitment to reform. Yesterday the president brushed past both the rhetoric and the conditioning. He waved away allegations of fraud, suggested that the opposition could run another day, and indicated that not all that much had changed in the U.S.-Philippine relationship. The two statements are published elsewhere on this page today. Inspect them.

Earlier in the day a senior Reagan aide, who surely was aware that challenger Corazon Aquino threatened to lead daily demonstrations if President Ferdinand Marcos stole the election, criticized the notion that someone might engage in "violence" or demonstrations "just because you didn't like the election (outcome)." He advised disgruntled Filipinos to "get on the team and work with the government to form a government, whether it's Marcos or Aquino."

What may be motivating this turn is anxiety about the American strategic position in the Philippines, especially on the part of those within the administration who believe that Mr. Marcos, for all his crimes, would still be a safer (perhaps transitional) steward than Mrs. Aquino. It would follow from this thinking that Washington, having made a bold and even interventionist effort to ensure a good election, should do what is necessary now to settle things down.

But that amounts to betraying a brave and worthy democratic enterprise. And it could backfire. Democracy in the Philippines is not simply the cry of a small elite. This election has seen impressive evidence of a broad, deep popular commitment. For Filipinos to come to believe that Mr. Marcos flouted their will -- with guns and thugs and open, outright theft -- and got away with it because of Washington's indulgence, could devastate American standing. Those who believe that Mr. Marcos remains a faithful friend should consider that, knowing President Reagan had made a conspicuous commitment to fairness, he betrayed him, too.

Today Mr. Reagan is to receive Sen. Lugar, whom he dispatched to observe the vote. From what Mr. Lugar has already said and from what others have reported, it is likely the president will be told that an overconfident Marcos found fraud and brutality essential to preserve his rule. In that case, Mr. Reagan will have no honorable or realistic choice but to insist that the count be resumed, under conditions assuring everyone of its fairness, and to make clear that the United States can only conduct business as usual with a government in Manila that reflects the people's will.

To its credit the administration had been conducting a wise and forceful policy. To serve major American strategic interests, it was helping the Philippines move toward democracy and an engagement with urgent national tasks. To lose heart now is wrong and tempts a policy disaster of Iran-like proportions.