Every American election, I suppose, is a contest between the past and the future, in which we are forced to choose our sentinmental preference. Usually, the choice is between generations, young bulls challenging old bulls for control of the herd, but 1980 promises to be different, a deeper and more complicated choice.

The question begins with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Is he a candidate who speaks for the future or the past? The former president, Gerald Ford, of all people, belittled Kennedy as the candidate of liberal nostalgia, which seems very close to the bare truth. Nostalgia is a marketable quality in politicians, and Jimmy Carter, who used his tiny hometown as a stage for his character, knows how potent are the remembered images of America's past. Carter cannot complain if Kennedy invokes the restoration of dynasty. It's not the log cabin or Plains, Ga., but if this is what Americans want, they will vote for it.

The Kennedy candidacy bothers me in a slightly different way. It seems too easy. It seems, in fact, like a cheap imitation of the recent past, without any of the real fire that burned in the original, without the hard test of bitter argument and a genuine cause. I am thinking of 1968, the last time a Democratic incumbent was challenged for the nomination. Against all the conventional predictions, the challengers behind Sen. Eugene McCarthy succeeded in ousting a president, though, of course, they did not get what they really wanted, an end to the war in Indochina.

The "draft Kennedy" movement -- let us assume that it is genuinely spontaneous -- seems to me an upside-down mirror of the McCarthy movement that arose 12 years ago. Lyndon Johnson, for all of his flaws and virtues, was master of the Washington political establishment, perhaps the most competent president of our era in those narrow terms. He held Washington in thrall while he lost the country. The idea that a wistful senator from Minnesota could make a difference, especially with a vanguard of "kids," seemed wildly romantic to the believers and plain silly to everyone else.

The Kennedy "draft movement" is almost a perfect opposite. These are not raggedy outsiders who are mobilizing as the advance guard for Kennedy's candidacy. If anything, they are outriders for the regular Democratic estabishment, which has been at war with this incumbent president from the start. Jimmy Carter keeps telling us that he is not of Washington, even though he is president, and I think he is essentially correct.

The Kennedy campaign will rally the old crowd which Carter eclipsed in 1976 as a candidate but has never mastered as president. The ground troops are not the "kids" who hitchhiked to New Hampshire in 1968; they are labor regulars and videoage political activists, people whose lives are already dedicated to politics and wining elections. In olden days, when most political activists were drawn from the big-city ethnic machines, they were known as hacks.

Kennedy seems risk-free to these people. Any nitwit can read the Gallup Poll and smell a winner. This, too, is quite different from 1968. McCarthy used to infuriate many of his own people by continually evoking a sense of doom, sardonic hints that he knew in his poet's soul that the McCarthy movement was heading toward an unhappy ending. He was correct, of course, and many have never forgiven him for that.

I can smell dread in the Kennedy candidacy, too, but not the kind that anyone wants to talk about in print. It is too awful, too scary. Anyway, the dominant tone of this parade is cheerfully simple-minded. Kennedy will win, the marchers assume, and once Kennedy is president, everything will be all right, America will feel good again, the way it felt in 1961, and good works will resume.

Personally, I do not wish to return to 1960; I would rather get on with the 1980s. I am among that hearty minority that never fell in love with the mythology of JFK. In most respects, I see Teddy Kennedy as a stronger "public man" than either of his brothers. But it is not those strengths that are propelling him, not his ideas, not his proposals or themes.

So far at least, Kennedy is reciting old poetry. His remarks on the economy sound much like the speech I heard his older brother give in 1960 -- meat-and-potatoes slogans of the New Deal coalition. It's not bad poetry; it can win elections. But surely it's less convincing now than it was 20 years ago. Like Pope John Paul II, Teddy is dynamite before an audience even if the listeners don't like his program.

The New Yorker magazine, which used to be so touch-minded about politicians named Johnson and Nixon, published an adoring portrait of Sen. Kennedy last week, a lyrical piece that evoked the misty harbor at Hyannisport and the warmth Kennedy has for his children and all of the old Kennedy images that were so charming when we first encountered them in 1960. The piece was so misty that I may have missed the point, but I presume we were supposed to feel touched by the drama unfolding.

The poetry, unfortunately, was interrupted by Sen. Kennedy's own astonishing words on the subject of leasership. I commmend them to all honest inquirers, for, in the space of a New Yorker column, the senator employed nearly every cliche I have heard from politicians' mouths over the past 20 years. Here's a little bit of it:

". . . The nature of the challenge today is more complicated than it was in the sixties, especially in the face of single-interest constituencies and power groups.There are serious questions among the young and others about how relevant and responsive our institutions are to our lives -- that includes the federal government, conglomerates, the media, the church, the family. There's a healthy skepticism. Constructive questioning is positive and can help us find our way, but there's a real danger of cynicism, and cynicism is obviously destructive. The political system has got to work. It's all we have."

When I read that passage, my heart pined for Lincoln. My mind asked: What is the great cause that propels the Kennedy movement, the moral imperative that rallies these citizens to oust an incumbent president? We know what united citizens in the 1968 struggle, but Kennedy and his people have not answered that question persuasively. It cannot be the price of gasoline for the loss of Nicaragua or inaction on national health insurance. Surely they are after something more enduring. But what?

"Leadership," I am told. I mistrust that word. When I ask them to explain, they usually evade or bring up fraudulent memories of a golden past that never was. "Leadership," I am told, is when the country was united and felt good about itself.

When was that? Not during the Civil War, surely, when democracy's most eloquent leader was in power, reviled and loved, crafty and good, shrewd and wise. Not during the Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt was in office, whom some Americans worshipped and others hated. Our noblest leaders presided in the most fractious times, not periods of contentment, yet we remember them differently, as great unifying voices in our history.

Let me suggest why. A great leader in a great democracy is able to see the future and make it convincing. Not necessarily peaceable and painless, but convincing. He speaks in a way that pulls us toward the emerging realities, makes people willing, even eager, to confront the hard newness of life. A sense of national destiny -- that is what runs through the great speeches of Lincoln and Roosevelt. People hated both men, but people also followed their words.

Does Edward Kennedy have a convincing vision of the future? $ does Jimmy Carter, for that matter? Or Jerry Brown or any of the interesting array of Republicans? I do not expect to find a Lincoln among them or even a Roosevelt, but I think that is the question they ought to answer.