It is sometimes instructive to look back. A yellow news clipping from 1972 has this headline: ''The McGovern strategy: chase Nixon into open.'' What's new? George McGovern, of course, was vainly trying to get Richard Nixon out of the White House and onto the campaign trail. Walter Mondale doesn't quite have that problem. But Ronald Reagan pretty much ignores him, never mentions him by name, and never seems to be treating Mr. Mondale very seriously.
There are other similarities beyond the obvious one: That Mr. McGovern, like Mondale, is an earnest and principled man but an indifferent campaigner; that McGovern was flattened by Mr. Nixon; and Mondale, too, seems headed toward a political trouncing.
McGovern also had a tax plan that was widely perceived as aimed mainly at soaking the rich and helping those in the lower brackets. Beyond his antiwar centerpiece, this tax-reform concept seemed to be his main bid to win that fall.
But somehow that plan did not work. And it wasn't because the well-to-do were upset over it. Reporters and pollsters soon found, to their surprise, that millions of Americans in the lower-income brackets didn't like it.
And why? Simply because they believed in the American dream. They saw themselves as somehow and sometime ''moving up'' into the upper brackets - and when they got there, they didn't want the government taking a lot of it away from them.
Mondale's tax objective is a little different from the McGovern reform. McGovern was looking for billions in new revenue that could then be used for programs like schools, health, employment, cities. He said it was a modest proposal and would head off more radical reforms in years to come.
McGovern probably couldn't have imagined the day - only 12 years hence - when a fellow Democrat and a liberal would come up with a tax-increase plan that was directed totally at balancing the budget. In 1972 McGovern would have said that only a conservative Republican could be trying to sell such a concept.
But Mondale is being beaten over the head with the same club used on McGovern. It's the less privileged in this nation, who would be pretty much exempt from Mondale's tax increases, who are rising up and saying, as they did to McGovern: ''Hey, I expect to make it big someday and I don't want to be penalized by your new taxes when I get there.''
Mondale says his plan will hit only the rich and that the broad middle class, which bears much of the brunt of the current tax load, won't be hurt. That is, that only those making about $60,000 and above will have to dig deeply for increased taxes.
But he miscalculated here, too. He forgot that there is a new America in which millions of families are now made up of husband-and-wife working teams in which their combined salaries are - or may be in the next few years - in the neighborhood of $60,000. And that's not all. Under the Mondale plan, taxes would go up for families making $25,000 or more.
Actually, the Reagan tax cuts didn't really benefit the wealthiest people as much as the Mondale people say. Instead, it was those in the middle class who benefited most. Oh, sure, people who are making up to $100,000 a year now see themselves as being in the upper middle class. That's what inflation has done to salaries in the last decade.
So Mondale, whether he knows it or not, is frightening middle-income people, or those, at least, who consider themselves so. And it is arguable that they make up most of the solid majority of voters who are now clearly behind the President. Many of these people are very unhappy with the deficit. But they tend to blame the Democrats - particularly Lyndon Johnson and his guns-and-butter policy during the Vietnam war - for the nation's economic problems, which they contend Reagan inherited.
But it is very instructive to look back at McGovern and 1972. How alike he and Mondale are as candidates and as men. Somehow neither looked ''presidential'' to the electorate. Nixon did, at least until inundated by Watergate. And so does Reagan.
The 1972 clipping, from early fall, says that McGovern was still wrestling with his ''vice-presidential problem.'' Remember? He had to replace Thomas Eagleton with Sargent Shriver before he could even try to get his campaign in gear. And Mondale has been slowed down considerably by Geraldine Ferraro's preoccupation with her financial disclosure and now with her tilting with church leaders and with many ''pro life'' people.
This is a different day and with very different issues from 1972. But so much the same!