OVER the last 20 years, many events and issues have been prematurely deemed the driving force of the next election, only to wind up being of minimal consequence on election day. The Panama Canal treaty, flag burning, school prayer, the Gulf war - all were overshadowed by subsequent events.
The current issues before Congress, however, are unlikely to fade away. Ongoing debates over taxing and spending and the role of government have drawn political battle lines that nothing short of a foreign policy crisis could render obsolete. Seven independent national polls taken since the beginning of October have asked Americans whether they were inclined to vote Democratic or Republican in the next election. Democrats averaged a lead of 4.7 percentage points, with results ranging from dead-even to an 11-point advantage.
These surveys also indicate that, at least today, the public is squarely behind Democrats in this battle over the budget and priorities. Democrats' charge that Republicans have ''gone too far'' has begun resonating so loudly with voters as to threaten to undo much of what happened in last year's midterm elections. Republicans are lucky that the election will be held almost a year from now, not today. Their mechanical advantages in fund-raising, candidate recruitment, and having far fewer open seats to defend than Democrats may offset some of this, but probably not all.
What's ironic is that it's not the Contract With America that is landing the GOP in hot water. Party pollsters scrubbed the Contract of any controversial items, and it was unknown to most voters on election day 1994 anyway. Its themes were philosophically conservative, but its proposals were mainly consensus positions for most middle-class, suburban voters. It's the post-Contract leg- islation and rhetoric that have repositioned Republicans to the right of most mainstream voters. The Contract said nothing about deregulating nursing homes or cutting $270 billion from the rate of Medicare's increase.
Democrats' battle cry that the GOP has gone too far is a smart one, flexible in that conservative Southern Democrats can tout certain issues while liberals can use others, all reinforcing that same broad message. This is the first coherent strategy Democrats have come up with in over a decade, and one that could pay big dividends next November.
The danger for them, however, is that their theme implies that Republicans are at least headed in the right direction, as public opinion polls reconfirm. Voters agree with the intention behind the GOP's efforts to downsize government and cut spending. They're questioning only the degree and the speed at which they're being pushed. But will Democratic candidates, particularly some more vocal incumbents, concede that this is the right direction? Some conservatives and moderates will. Some more-liberal Democrats, particularly minorities, won't - possibly blunting the party's message. If Americans suspect that voting Democratic would effectively turn the clock back to before 1994, they may decide to vote Republican, particularly if GOP moderates begin prevailing more often.
Democrats don't appear to have rethought their New Deal-Great Society message as we approach the millennium. If Republicans are chastened by this budget exercise and begin pushing for slower change, they may avoid the cruel blow they would incur if the election were today. The chief obstacle to such an attitude adjustment is the 73 freshmen, to whom ''compromise'' is a four-letter word.
Our fickle electorate, who rejected the war-winning President Bush in 1992 and a 40-year Democratic House majority in 1994, may vacillate further over the next 49 weeks. But today's events will be on their minds to some extent as they pull the lever.