"Games," George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "are for people who neither read or think."

The game of What If is a hallowed traditon in Washington, where dashed ambitions are as common as press releases, and some Republicans remain convinced that Alf Landon was the nation's 33rd president.

The harsh fact is that Republicans are particularly vulnerable to the charge of aggravated nostalgia. We've been accused of being born looking over our shoulder. We've not always welcomed ideas quite so much as we preached ideology.

But man does not live by dread alone.

The fact is, things would have been different had Jerry Ford been elected in 1976. The Ford administration wasted no time with allegations involving amaretto, pyramids or Hollywood parties. No one mistook the White House for Animal House.

Malaise then was something you felt after partying late, or in confronting the national debt. The Cabinet was not subject to purge at the first sign of individual talent. No one confused Betty Ford with Madame LaFarge.

The only thing that President Ford was interested in whipping was inflation. And he was doing a pretty fair job at it, too -- the inflation rate for his last full year in office was 4.8 percent, compared with 13.2 percent for the first half of 1979. By contrast, Jimmy Carter may leave the White House with a job approval rating lower than the rate of inflation during his term in office.

With Gerald Ford in the Oval Office, we could have maintained a national defense equal to the challenge of Soviet militarism, while negotiating a SALT II treaty against a backdrop of diplomatic cohesion. We would not have canceled the B1 bomber or delayed the MX missile. We would not have significantly reduced our overflights of Cuba, thus avoiding the seriocomic "crisis" of recent weeks. We would have pursued a measured policy of rapprochement with mainland China, rather than abrogating our treaty commitments to Taiwan by presidential fiat -- a power grab that has rightfully been ruled unconstitutional in federal court.

I suspected we might have problems abroad the first time I heard Jimmy Carter refer to his great friends, the Eye-talians. It's been downhill ever since.

Under Cy Vance and Zbig Brzeniski we've behaved like one of Doctor Doolittle's pushmipullyus, that mythical two-headed creature determined to go in opposite directions at once. We've been for human rights -- sort of. We've cut old friends, in a native belief that good intentions prevail over cold strength. In Iran, Afghanistan, Indochina, the Horn of Africa and Latin America, we've reversed Teddy Roosevelt's old maxim to read: "Speak loudly and carry a toothpick."

Of course, foreign policy isn't a big conern at the White House these days. Bob Strauss reiterates our support of Israel in Miami condominiums. Then he returns to Capitol Hill to blame the Begin government for intransigence and imply that American patience with Israel is running low. It might evaporate altogether -- after the Florida primary.

Then there's what the Carter people call their energy policy. Most of us scan it closely, yet in vain, for anything more imaginative than new taxes. Jerry Ford plugged solar energy in his first year of office. But he believed, rightly in my opinion, that the federal government was in no position to compete with private enterprise in overcoming the numerous obstacles to development of this potentially crucial new energy source. The same goes for other alternative fuels.

The search for new oil is hardly the sort of initiative that Washington does well. You only have to examine the disaster of the Strategic Oil Reserve to sense just how incompetent a bunch of bureaucrats can be when it comes to producing anything beyond memos and regulations. It's hard to escape the feeling that, if it could, the Carter administration would be content to have people buy gas from the Postal Service.

Candidate Carter said he would streamline the federal apparatus -- cut out all that red tape and gobbledygook that cost the average American $2,000 a year. In fact, he's given us two new Cabinet officers and would have imposed a Consumer Protection Agency had the Congress not rejected a poorly drawn proposal. Having spent a quarter century in the Congress, Jerry Ford knew that if Americans need protection from anything, it is Washington's rapacious and smug assumption that only it knows what is best for every individual.

Under President Ford, we might have adopted at long last a badly needed program of catastrophic health insurance. We would have procured imaginative new tax incentives, such as indexing and accelerated depreciation. Given four years in which to enact policy rather than explain away Richard Nixon, we could have carried out promising new alternatives in federal-state relations, block grants as a vehicle for welfare reform and a host of other innovations aimed at maximizing individual responsibility.

Now let's be fair. If Jimmy Carter has made most of us feel nostalgic for 1976, he's induced millions of his fellow Democrats to pine for even more distant pleasures. A generation ago, Adlai Stevenson roused Americans of both parties with his proclamation, "We must look forward to great tomorrows." Today, Democratic kingmakers seem anxious to anoint a man who says we must live off great memories. Edward Kennedy preaches not renewal, but restoration. Charisma will get us through. What worked for FDR will work for the grandchildren of those who stood in bread lines.

Such a campaign reinforces the belief of those who argue that nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

If you'll remember, the Ford campaign slogan in 1976 was "He's making us feel good again." Obviously, we didn't feel quite good enough. But I defy you to contrast Ford's optimism, based on economic productivity and a forceful, intelligible foreign policy, with Jimmy Carter's litany of national limitation, and come away unconvinced that a mistake was made in opting for grits over guts.

Of course, I may have selfish reasons for so graciously accepting our loss in 1976. As senior senator from Kansas, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and a former GOP national chairman, I'm occasionaly noticed in Washington restaurants. I have no trouble hailing a cab. Had Jerry Ford won, all that would have changed. I would have been vice president.