Here's a 10-point message from an ''idealist without illusions'' to those fellow Democrats loudly disappointed by President Clinton's willingness to sign regressive Republican legislation on poor children, food stamps, legal immigrants and other subjects.
1. ''Never pollute the well from which you will soon be drinking.'' (A sanitized version of advice that Lyndon Johnson gave to a group of us during his first year as president.)2. Life, love, golf and politics are inherently fraught with disappointment. But occasional disappointment - in one's relatives, colleagues, teammates or political party - is not grounds for public denunciation or abandonment.
3. ''We will not be able to help those who need it most unless a Democratic president is re-elected.'' (A shortened version of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first-term admonition to White House aides, who were urging him to go faster and further on Social Security.)
4. An electorate turned off in 1994 by continuing gridlock in a Democratic Congress would not be turned on in 1996 by a Democratic president vetoing the Republican welfare bill for the third time.
Democrats who failed every opportunity to improve our broken-down welfare system when they controlled both houses of Congress should have some understanding of the paltry choices confronting the president in 1996.
In politics, as in war, a tactical temporary retreat is better than a permanently crushing defeat. Winning isn't everything, but it sure beats losing.
5. ''The perfect is the enemy of the good.'' (President Kennedy's approach to a recalcitrant Congress.) Those who want to change the status quo and those who prefer a legislative decision to a campaign issue must be willing to accept incremental advance as better than nothing at all. They also must be willing to strive for the political victory that can make better legislation possible.
6. After Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole moved the Republican Party to the right on health care, economic justice, racial equality, religious liberty, women's rights, the environment and student loans, Mr. Clinton logically occupied the middle. That's where most of the votes are.
7. The margin of Mr. Clinton's popular-vote victory this year will determine his party's prospects for regaining a majority in one or both houses of Congress.
Defusing Republican campaign attacks can help end the reign of Jesse Helms as guardian of American foreign policy, Bill Archer as chief Medicare slasher, Henry Hyde's rewrite of the Constitution and Mr. Gingrich as third in line for the presidency.
8. ''To get yourself elected . . . you must learn that there are times when a man in public life is compelled to rise above his principles.'' (Attributed to former Sen. Henry Ashurst of Arizona during the 1920 campaign.) Let the candidate who is without sin cast the first stone at that message.
9. ''The voter confronted by a choice between Republicans and pseudo-Republicans will always vote for the real thing.'' (Harry Truman.)
Harry was right. But Mr. Clinton - fighting for Medicare and Medicaid, affirmative action, minimum wages, student loans, gun control and freedom of choice in our prayers and private lives, to name but a few of his battles - is no pseudo-Republican.
10. Still doubtful about Clinton? Consider the alternative.