Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) says that whenever he tells an audience he voted against last year's savings and loan cleanup, he gets big applause. And when he explains that the bill forces "working stiffs" to bail out "millionaires," he gets hoots of outrage.

New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) says he regularly asks audiences why the Bush administration has not thrown more savings-and-loan swindlers in jail. "If you're a kid from South Jamaica {Queens} and you get caught stealing a loaf of bread, they'll send you to Rikers Island and you'll be sodomized the first night you're there," he said. "But if you're a businessman ripping us off for billions, they'll go out and play golf with you."

Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who refers to President Bush as the "savings and loan president," says he gives audiences a biting little summary of Bush's leadership in the face of a fiscal catastrophe: "His main objective is to sweep it under the rug."

These could be the opening sounds of the 1992 presidential campaign.

Slowly -- and belatedly, in the view of many in the party -- some Democrats are trying to frame the worst financial scandal in the nation's history into a populist allegory about Republican misrule. Their case rests on two premises:The Reagan-era deregulation of the nation's savings and loans -- in which then-Vice President Bush played a visible though subordinate role -- violated a simple law of human nature. One cannot give speculators an invitation to gamble with other people's money, a promise to cover their losses with taxpayer-backed deposit insurance and an assurance of little government oversight and not expect a debacle. The Bush-era cleanup -- now estimated to cost at least $180 billion in the near term and perhaps more than twice that figure over the next 30 years -- violates a simple moral test. The people who benefited least from deregulation of the thrift industry should not be the ones most burdened by the cleanup. Taxpayers, as a group, got nothing from deregulation. S&L depositors did -- in the form of higher interest rates. And so did the swindlers who looted billions from S&Ls while there were so few cops on the regulatory beat.

This is the Democrats' case. It will not be an easy one to make.

The most obvious hurdle they face is that, while degregulation is understood to be a Republican enthusiasm, its execution has been a bipartisan misadventure. During the 1980s, Democratic members of Congress not only joined forces with the ideological deregulators in the Reagan administration, they sometimes carried degregulation to clearly unintended if not illegal lengths, as when some lawmakers allegedly intervened on behalf of campaign contributors from the S&L industry to help them escape the weakened clutches of federal examiners.

Because both parties had a hand in the problem, neither has had an interest in a public accounting. By 1988, the outlines of the scandal were clear, but neither Bush nor Democrat Michael S. Dukakis made an issue of S&Ls in the presidential campaign. And reporters who covered the campaign failed to force them to discuss it.

"What we've had so far is an effort by both parties to arrive at a solution without ever explaining to the public what caused the problem," said Fred Wertheimer, head of Common Cause. "It makes me so angry I could scream."

This bipartisan curtain of silence finally has begun to lift, driven up by the mushrooming cost of the cleanup. Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady's acknowedgment last week that the short-term S&L bill will be nearly double what he had predicted a year ago and Bush's call the week before for a domestic budget summit -- prompted, in part, by the worsening S&L numbers -- were evidence that the administration no longer feels it can afford to play down the problem.

But alerting the public to the magnitude of the crisis creates its own set of political perils. "When the public understands how much this is going to cost, it's going to be Bush's Waterloo," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "And the more he declares these are big problems but only comes up with small solutions, the more he raises questions about his leadership."

Many Republican strategists agree that the S&L debacle is "the biggest sleeping giant on the political landscape," in the words of Edward J. Rollins, a former White House political director who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee. But most GOP operatives remain hopeful that Bush can escape damage.

"Any time you have a huge problem that occurred incrementally over a long period of time with a lot of culpability to go around, it's hard to make it a partisan issue," said Bush's pollster, Robert M. Teeter. "Also, we can always make the case that, 'Look, we're the guys who are fixing it.' "

Others in the GOP are much edgier about the politics of playing Mr. Fix-it. "Like all acts of leadership, this one has a potential downside," said Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa). "If it appears the cleanup isn't being done in an effective or fair fashion, the liability will go to the White House."

There are already some early political warning signs. The massive agency created to oversee the cleanup -- the Resolution Trust Corp. -- has been beset by allegations of disorganization and infighting. There have been stories about Wall Street speculators making huge profits by buying failed S&Ls on the cheap. And House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) and others have been criticizing the administration for not spending all the money Congress authorized for a special Justice Deaprtment task force to prosecute S&L swindlers.

Meanwhile, there is a tax equity debate over the way the cleanup has been structured. Among the biggest beneficiaries of S&L deregulation were wealthy individuals who, through deposit brokers, invested millions of dollars in $100,000 blocks in multiple S&Ls. They had the best of both worlds: the security of federal deposit insurance and the high return of deregulated interest rates.

Last year, Reps. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.) and Bruce A. Morrison (D-Conn.), urged on by consumer activist Ralph Nader, offered an amendment that would have paid for the cleanup by raising income and inheritance taxes on the wealthy. Their plan never got out of the Rules Committee. Populist Democrats contend that in the absence of such a new tax, the costs of the cleanup will fall disproportionately on middle- and lower-income Americans because the tax structure has become less progressive in the past decade and because the borrowing required will transfer income to wealthier Americans.

Will a Democrat make this populist case against Bush in 1992? It may be another year before the Democratic presidential field assembles. But Democrats still hope that, even without the clarity of a declared candidate, they can use multiple voices to begin to reframe the way voters perceive the scandal.

"Until now, the main allegory the public and the media have seized on has been the Keating Five, which sort of screws up the story line for us," said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin.

In that allegory, five senators -- four of them Democrats -- allegedly intervened improperly on behalf of their big campaign contributor, high-flying S&L owner Charles H. Keating Jr., and tried to keep diligent federal regulators from doing their job. In the Democrats' preferred allegory, the entire federal banking regulatory system was understaffed -- the result more of "unregulation" than deregulation -- so that "for years, there were simply no cops to investigate the scenes of the crime," said Nader.

"The insistence of the media in dealing with this story in terms of heroes and villains masks the fact that this was fundamentally the crisis of an idea," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "The idea was deregulation. But in carrying out this idea, the government behaved like a fire insurance company that said to its customers: 'Go ahead, play with matches. We'll cover you if anything goes wrong.' "

Who thought up such an idea? And why?

In the late 1970s, the heavily regulated S&L industry was hemorrhaging money as a result of competition from unregulated money-market accounts that paid higher interest rates. In the last months of the Carter administration, Congress lifted caps on S&L interest rates and raised the maximum level of federal deposit insurance from $40000 to $100,000 per account. Two years later, Congress passed the Garn-St Germain Act, which permitted S&Ls to branch out from their traditional portfolio of home mortgage loans into riskier, higher-yielding investments in everything from junk boads to unsecured commercial loans to major real estate projects.

The S&Ls were soon awash in federally insured deposits, becoming a magnet for high-flying speculators. In retrospect, the combination seemed to cry out for prudent regulation. The Reagan administration moved in the opposite direction. It turned down repeated requests from the federal government's chief S&L regulating agency, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, for more examiners and auditors. In Texas -- site of more S&L failures than any other state -- the number of S&L examiners was cut from 54 to 12 between 1981 and 1985.

On July 2, 1984, the administration's Task Force on Regulation of Financial Services -- chaired by Vice President Bush -- issued a report whose language captures the deregulatory flavor of the era.

"At present, some simple, everyday activities are subjected to regulatory proceedings that serve no apparent purpose. . . . Regulations also contribute to extensive and highly costly litigation. As both regulatory and legal costs are ultimately paid for by the consumer, there is significant public interest in eliminating those that are unnecessary or counterproductive."

"That report was not an effort at abolishing the rules," said the Bush task force staff director, Richard C. Breeden, who now heads the Securities and Exchange Commission. "Its principal recommendation would have forced the thrifts to adopt stiffer capital requirements and abandon flimsy accounting practices. Unfortunately, these weren't adopted by Congress until six years too late."

That is the case Bush can be expected to make if a Democratic opponent forces him to account for the S&L calamity in 1992: He would blame Democrats in Congress. Partisan charges would fly back and forth, but this is one debate, many believe, where the turf is more hospitable to the Democrats.

"One parable to extract from this whole misadventure is that the reason we need government is that the private sector, left to its own greedy devices, will take the public for a ride," said Robert Reich, a professor of political economy at Harvard. "This is a good parable for the Democrats. It may take a downturn in the economy for them to make it work. But if there is one -- even a modest one -- we'll see the rebirth of Democratic populist politics in 1992."