If the Democrats intend to contest seriously for the presidency in 1992 -- which they show no signs of doing -- they will have to prepare to deal with a key issue: the unpresidentiality of the Democratic nominee.
The Republicans will hammer at it day and night from the moment they get a probable identification of that elusive personage. What will be so unpresidential about this nominee in all probability will be his or her unfamiliarity with foreign affairs, defense and national security.
Michael Dukakis in 1988 carried this unpresidentiality to comic extremes. When his advisers confronted his poor image on defense, he was portrayed as having a genuine affection for certain weapons. That was the depth of his demonstrated thought on the subject.
Mr. Dukakis may have been the first presidential nominee who never made a major foreign-policy address. Vice President Quayle, whom Democrats like to ridicule on these matters, will address the Baltimore Council on Foreign Relations Thursday.
Mr. Quayle is more qualified today by thought and study to guide the nation through the perilous uncharted international seas ahead than most of the Democrats assessing whether to run for president -- no matter what jokes we tell.
It is a surmountable problem. When the former governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, was mounting a run for the presidency in the mid-Seventies, he worked through a solemn organization called the Trilateral Commission (Western Europe, Japan and the U.S.) to educate himself. So much so that various nuts portrayed the Trilateral Commission as a sinister conspiracy undermining the Republic.
It worked, and Mr. Carter not only went on to become president, but provided responsible leadership in the Cold War and a great role in the Middle East, whatever else he may have done or failed to do.
There was a time -- going into World War I and coming out of World War II -- when the Democrats were the party of internationalism and the Republicans were isolationist. Isolationists did not want to arm against the threat posed by Nazi Germany in the '30s. They called with ex-President Herbert Hoover for ''fortress America'' rather than collective security and foreign aid, to contain Soviet expansion in the late '40s. They wanted no truck with the U.N.
But Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan converted from 1930s isolationist to 1940s collective security and agreed that politics stopped at the water's edge. His cooperation with the Democratic Truman administration cemented our side in the Cold War.
In 1952, the Republicans nominated the NATO commander in Europe, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, as their nominee instead of the semi-isolationist and truly Republican senator from Ohio, Robert Taft. The Republicans have been internationalist ever since, the party of Nixon and Bush, who campaigned to great effect as certified experts.
The American people understood all along that U.S. relations with Russia, or whatever that nuclear superpower was to be called, was the greatest issue, foreign or domestic. They have always wanted their government in the hands of people they could trust on issues of peace and war, freedom or slavery, global life or death.
But the Democratic crypto-candidates are sounding as isolationist as pre-Eisenhower Republicans. All they know of foreign policy is that they are against it. They propose to score points by demanding to know why George Bush doesn't think as much about America as he does about Russia.
It is a recipe for political disaster, the last three elections all over again. And in the unlikely event of a win, it is a recipe for global disaster.
What the American electorate requires is not someone who will crusade against Mr. Bush's foreign policy, but someone who can be trusted to deal with the momentous issues of the new global line-up, and to command the armed services and to chart the economy.
This nominee would crusade against President Bush on the bread-and-butter Democratic domestic issues: choice, rights of privacy, civil rights, decent living conditions and medical care for all Americans, with a bit of class warfare over Reagan taxes thrown in. Such a nominee would cater to anxiety on crime, as Mr. Dukakis failed to do, as well as to economic anxieties.
In foreign affairs, this nominee would be pre-emptive. He would not attack President Bush but demonstrate at every turn his own competence on the vital questions of national security, arms control, the Middle East and preparedness in a chaotic world.
Since demonstrations of competence in foreign affairs are nonecessarily headline-making, they may go unnoticed except by the political junkies and opinion makers. So how do we tell if someone is presidential?
One way will be to examine the speakers' list of the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs and similar organizations. We would need to know which candidates sought invitations, what they said and how much input they had in their own speeches. A candidate who does not want to address the council on the global issues can be dismissed as unpresidential.
It may be that there is not a single Democrat as qualified to be president as Dan Quayle, but it would be nice to know that a few