Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), one of 20 U.S. observers of the Philippine election, was at the predawn press conference called by 30 government vote counters who had quit their duties to protest the handling of the ballots.

"Until that point," he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune and States- Item, "I had been cynical." But then he saw the vote counters gathered in the sacristy of a church for an hour, watched them pray together for five minutes, then saw them come out, "holding onto one another, just obviously scared out of their wits."

"These young folks were taking their lives, and the lives of their families, in hand. . . . I saw this and I was moved. Tears came to my eyes. I totally believed what they had to say."

What they had to say was the thing that President Reagan either cannot believe or at least cannot bring himself to act on: that a desperate Ferdinand Marcos is trying his damndest to steal an election.

It's too bad Livingston didn't have a TV camera with him. Perhaps if Reagan had been able to see on videotape what Livingston saw, through tears, with his own eyes, he would understand what so many people, including several members of the observer team, have been trying to tell him: Marcos has to go.

Marcos' ruthlessness in clinging to his shaky presidency is not a new discovery. What has changed the situation is the televised violence and fraud: the goon squad assaults on poll watchers; the attempts to steal ballot boxes; the wild disparities in the vote tallies reported by the unofficial observers and the government's official counters. In at least one polling place, the official count showed not a single vote for Corazon Aquino -- not even by her own poll watchers.

The fraud is palpable, and still Reagan dallies.

A senior administration official offered an explanation to editors and reporters of The Washington Post. "What do we say? If we say that it's been a very fraudulent election and should be thrown out, we have people in the streets tomorrow with riots and the like and burning. . . . The next thing you know, you have civil disorder. If we say it's not a fraudulent election, we'll have the same thing, because indeed it is a fraudulent election."

But since saying nothing amounts to an endorsement of the self-evident fraud, Reagan might consider this: if you're going to get the same chaos whether you tell the truth or lie, then you might as well tell the truth and at least get credit for honesty.

The president doesn't see it that way -- at least not yet. He still hasn't been able to do what another official observer, Sen. John F. Kerry (D- Mass.) suggested: tell Marcos, "You messed up. It's time to go."

Maybe he is concerned about the American bases in the Philippines -- Clark Field and Subic Bay. But as House Majority Whip Tom Foley (D-Wash.) put it, "I don't think the United States can continue as if nothing happened."

And the fact is, we probably won't. President Reagan may have difficulty reading the fundamental morality of the situation, but he is highly literate when it comes to reading political reality. The reality is that the handling of the election has transformed the Marcos regime from merely embarrassing to positively untenable. Soon or late, the tyrant will go, and the Reagan will want to be in position to play hero to the Philippine people who have counted on him to give substance to their democratic aspirations.

It may be that the president's dispatch of the tough-minded Philp C. Habib, one-time envoy to the Middle East, to make an on-site assessment of the Philippine situation, marks the first step in cutting the cord that sustains Marcos.

When Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier's reign in Haiti became unsupportable by the United States, the president found a way to communicate that fact, and in a matter of days, Duvalier was gone.

If Habib's report is as tough as most observers expect it to be, it may mark the end for Marcos as well. The incredibly patient Filipinos deserve no less.