NEW YORK — New York. Lech Walesa went to Washington with all the optimism and earnestness of a hero in a Frank Capra movie. He was glad-handed and back-slapped and given gifts of debt relief. In his euphoric trip around the country, he hardly had time to reflect on the likelihood that if he gets out of economic line he will be destroyed by financial favors withdrawn by the West. And if he doesn't get out of line, he will be destroyed by his own people. There are not likely to be any happy Capra endings for Mr. Walesa.
He is caught by the antithetical demands of Washington and the people who elected him. The Bush administration insists that he pursue policies the Polish people voted against when they brought down the first Solidarity government. The gift of debt relief has dangerous strings. In order to get some now and more in three years, his government had to sign an agreement with the International Monetary Fund that commits him to tight money, which has been rejected and will be rejected again in Poland.
Dissatisfaction is already high among those who voted for Mr. Walesa because he promised a change. They feel betrayed because he has given them more of the same -- a wage feeze, dropping living standards, unemployment and recession.
As Mr. Walesa toured the U.S., a wildcat strike against his government began in the same Gdansk shipyard that gave birth to his Solidarity movement in 1980, organized under the banner of the new Independent Trade Union by the same crane operator whose dismissal touched off the 1980 upheaval. Even Mr. Walesa's old Solidarity union has a more militant stance, reflected in a statement from the Silesia chapter saying, ''no more blank checks for the government.''
As part of Mr. Walesa's general loss of authority, Parliament refused his request for legislative elections in the spring; it set them in the fall. Stanislaw Tyminski, the emigre businessman who took one quarter of the votes in the presidential election, is in Poland organizing a new party. Whether the challenge to Mr. Walesa comes in the new way through elections or in the old way through strikes, the people who defeated the last Communist government and the first Solidarity government are not likely to wait long.
Summer may bring Mr. Walesa's crisis. His political base will push for an active, spending government promoting solutions to depressed living standards. Washington will tenaciously cling to its tight-money, free market requirements. The gap is too great for him to bridge with his standard tactic of agreeing with both sides and trying to reconcile. Despite his undoubted political skills, Mr. Walesa is not likely to be able to break this political and personal deadlock alone.
Perhaps it is only a Capra fantasy to think that outside forces might help him. There are a couple of strange candidates.
Mr. Walesa might not have a guardian angel, but he does have the pope. In May the Polish-born John Paul II will issue an encyclical on social doctrine prepared with a team of international economists and focused on Eastern Europe. It is likely to restate his previous, pointed reminders that labor is not just a commodity, that businessman must respond ''to the just requirements of the common good,'' and that government must provide social justice.
He will deliver that message during his June trip to Poland. It may resolve Mr. Walesa's conflict by bringing him back to his movement's original belief in the solidarity of the strong with the weak. Given the strong emotional hold the pope has on Mr. Walesa and many members of the Solidarity government, he could provide a needed counterbalance to the dazzled awe they feel toward all things Western, including its bitter economic nostrums.
The pope is not likely to be effective in moderating Washington's policy, but the Heritage Foundation might be. In an astonishing recent report, the conservative think-tank, which has played a key role in shaping policies for the Reagan and Bush administrations, calls for the tight-money policies promoted by Washington and the International Monetary Fund to be abandoned, lest Eastern Europe suffer the same economic failure as Latin America.
Heritage opposes the current strategy of controlling consumer spending through wage controls and tight credit that produce recession and unemployment. It argues for the opposite strategy of expanded production and incentives for private-sector growth.
It calls this policy supply-side development, but in its essential point of emphasizing economic growth instead of contraction, it is similar to Keynesianism, the successful method of rebuilding Western Europe after World War II -- and to the common sense of the Polish people.
It would take a Capra miracle for George Bush to reverse his current economic recipe for Poland. Unfortunately, miracles happen less often in Washington than in the movies. Mr. Walesa's story is unlikely to end happily.
Marlene Nadle is a foreign-affairs journalist frequently based in Eastern Europe.