IN HIGH SCHOOL, I spent my time on the bench -- the basketball bench, to be precise. I was good at being on the bench. I could keep time and keep score and yell the right cheers and sometimes, when we were way ahead or way behind, I got into the game for a little while. Mostly though, I got accustomed to preparing for something that never came to pass.

There is something about those days -- that getting up for an experience that never comes -- that reminds me of the Carter administration. Several times now we have been given marching orders that on closer examination have turned out to be something else entirely. I get the feeling that the old coach in the White House is revving us up for games that will never come.

Take the president's announcement last summer that he was setting an import quota on foreign oil. He listed this as one of his "points of attack" and after announcing the quota figure as 8.2 million barrels a day, less even than we used in 1977, he solemnly said, "And we will meet this goal."

I took the news like a champ. I own two cars and my house is heated with oil, but I was ready to bite the bullet. I was up for it. I was sick and tired of being kicked around by OPEC and I wanted, in my own little fashion, to fight back -- to somehow get into this game.

It turned out, of course, that the 1977 levels were the highest in recent history -- 8.6 million barrels a day. The next year's was 8.1 million and in 1979 we imported 7.7 million barrels a day. I was ready to make the sacrifice, but it turned out it had already been made. I felt cheated.

There is somewhat the same quality of sham to the president's announcement that in response to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, he would ask the Congress to reimpose registration for the draft. I am not sure, really, if this is a good thing or a bad thing. But whatever draft registration is, it is massive -- universal. It involves millions of people, most of them of voting age, and it sets, in its way, a national agenda. It gets you off the bench. It turned out, though, that initially only young men born in 1960 and 1961 are being called off the bench. There is nothing universal about that.

The business of pulling out of the Olympics is more of the same. First the president sets a deadline then it turns out that his aide, Lloyd Cutler, said the matter could be left hanging until, say, May. In the end, the orginial deadline was reimposed but the damage was done.

There is a kind of inconsistency here that is befuddling. You may ask, for instance, just what are the great themes of this administration? One theme was the neutralization of the Indian Ocean. Now we want bases there. One of them was human rights. That went out with the neutralization of the Indian Ocean.

Remember zero-based budgeting? Heard about it lately? Remember reducing the huge, bloated, federal bureaucracy in Washington? Well, there are more bureaucrats here than there ever were. Where are those Soviet troops in Cuba? Still in Cuba. Remember the national malaise of last summer? Where is the malaise of yesteryear?

It's not that the Carter adminstration breaks its promises or does so more than previous administrations. The point, instead, is that it tends to lack a theme or that the ones it proclaims get lost in the shuffle. We are always revving up for crusades that never get launched or get called back after some false start. We are at one moment disciples of Andy Young and then next of Zbigniew Brzenzinski.

For this reason, the results from the Maine Democratic caucuses may be fortunate for Carter. In the same way that the Iowa drubbing forced Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to get hold of himself, to come to grips with the issues, Maine's less-than-breathtaking win may do something for Carter. It would be good for him and good for the nation if he got out of the White House and began to articulate his themes -- say why, besides the sheer joy of winning, he so very much wants to win.

At the moment, if Carter wins, he does nothing more than beat Kennedy. He advances no great cause, gives you no great reason to get off the bench. That kind of victory can be short-lived. In the general election the voters may say of Carter what Winston Churchill said when served pudding: "Pray remove it. It lacks theme."