WHAT A CHOICE! Peanut farmer vs. movie actor. Right-winger vs. Incompetent. Snopes vs. Scopes. Mean vs. Dumb. Carter vs. Reagan!

That seems, for the moment, to be the prevailing wisdom about the two major-party candidates. As a card-carrying Countercyclical Panglossian, let me raise my half-full glass in dissent. I think we've got two candidates who aren't half-bad. And either may, in fact, turn out to be rather better than that.

Let's look at them one at a time.

The president. Is he imcompetent? I've had some major disagreements with President Carter's policy direction -- but then I've had such disagreements with every president since Lyndon Johnson. Of course, I worked for LBJ and I am told that there are even intelligent people who had policy disagreements with him. The fact is that each of our recent presidents has -- with different phrases -- been assailed as incompetent. Johnson, we were told, was an unsophisticated cowboy who shot from the hip; Nixon was isolated; Ford plain dumb. In fact, LBJ was a cautious operator who understood subtleties, Nixon knew what was going on, and Ford was a bright and well-informed political man.

The incompetency myth about presidents stems, it seems to me, in large part from intense press concentration on the White House. Imagine how you (and your associates) would sound if 100 crack reporters scrutinized everything you said, did and thought and then wrote in detail and in particular about every bonehead play, gaffe and misstatement. You don't return phone-calls? You called someone a jerk? You didn't compliment someone who wanted complimenting? The paper-work moved too slowly? There was an argument in the office about how best to do something? You changed your mind? There was a feud? Heaven forfend!

Our presidents, like us, are imperfect human beings. They work in an imperfect institution. They should be judged -- with flinty eyes -- by what they accomplish and don't accomplish, not by stories of bumbling.

And Carter has some solid accomplishments to point to, some of whcih have gone largely unnoticed. We tend, after all, to give high marks to a president for coping with rather that preventing an unpleasant situation. But consider the Olympics. Had the United States team gone to Moscow, surely so would those other nations that boycotted: Japan, Canada, West Germany and so on. Following the invasion of Afghanistan, such games in Moscow would have been seen as nothing less that Munich-in-a-jockstrap. It didn't happen that way -- largely because President Carter turned the political screws, and did it rather skillfully both here and abroad.

Carter was criticized for acting on the basis of political expediency during the primaries. (Golly!) Yet he embargoed grain to the Soviet Union and (successfully) promoted draft registration. Only retrospectively can these acts be seen as politically expedient; in fact they were enormously risky from a donestic political point of view. The embargo was announced just before a critical caucus in an agricultural state; the draft registration was announced against the backdrop of a campaign against a candidate to the president's left -- Kennedy -- who might have gained immeasurably by galvanizing young anti-draft activists.

My own thought is that the passage of draft registration, while of only small military value, was an act of enormous symbolic power. And Ronald Reagan, by the way, supposedly on Carter's hawk-side, waffled on the Olympics; he opposes draft registration; he is against the grain embargo (as one wag said in Detroit: "It's not that Reagan can't stand up to Brezhnev -- he can't stand up to Bob Dole").

Now, don't get me wrong; I still have big problems with Carter's defense and foreigh policy. Wouldn't it have been nice if he had pushed a real defense spending increase after Afghanistan instead of giving us hokey rhetoric about how America's never been stronger? But the poing here is something else: He's done some very good things (at least to my way of thinking).

Camp David was surely one such, and the history books will write about that, not Andrew Young's chat with the PLO, or the bizarre earlier effort to deal the Soviets into the peace process. Deregulation of oil prices is another, although Carter seems to have been brought around to this view after considerable kicking and screaming.

In fact, most of my problems with Carter concern his first two or two-and-a-half years in office, a time of sometimes appalling naivete in both foreign affairs and economic matters, coupled with a wrongheaded or mindless set of second-and third-level appointees who either originated or compounded his problems. But he's gotten much better as he's gone along. He might well turn out to be first rate.

The current rap on him is that he's running a mean, inaccurate and occasionally sleazy compaign. I happen to think that's at least partly true: The "racism" slur on Reagan was below the belt, and the idea that Republicans were the party that was soft on defense (articulated at the New York convention) is only slightly short of politically obscene. I don't like it; and yet I think it largely irrelevant. Politics ain't beanbag, and if Carter really is a mean fellow, we might recall that there have been plenty of good presidents who also got there by playing hardball.

Now what about Reagan? Consider the charges.

He's a movie actor. Terrible. Yet the same people say it's too bad that Carter isn't a better speaker. The same was said of Johnson, Nixon and Ford. All politicians (all people?) are actors; some are good at it and can inspire their flock, others can't. Why not the best?

He doesn't have the experience. Silly, really. Twice governor of the largest state, union president, active in national politics for close to 20 years, a candidate for president three times -- Reagan, in fact, when compared to other 20th century presidents at the time they came to office, has, had as much or more "experience" than Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and, by the way, Jimmy Carter in 1976.

He's a creature of the past, living psychologically in an earlier, simpler, era -- an era of big front porches in tree-lined small towns; he is the candidate of "nostalgia." Again, I would suggest, a mindless charge. One can agree or disagree with the Reagan remedies, but they are in fact quite in keeping with some of the most sophisticated thinking in the contemporary public policy arena.

No man runs for president without access to a vast network; staff who have access to former government officials, who have access to learned men in academia and in the think tanks, who have access to more data than they know what to do with. Reagan, like Carter, or like any other serious presidential candidate sits atop such an intellectual pyramid. (In fact, he has exploited that idea pyramid as a newspaper columnist and radio commentator for several years; he'd be our first ex-journalist president since JFK.) The basic ideas that have been emanating from this somewhat-right-of-center pyramid are surely contestable, but they are neither silly or nostalgic. It was New York Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, a Democrat, who recently wrote that it was the Republican Party in recent years that had become "the party of ideas."

That our defenses have been weakened and must be rebuilt, that market forces remain the best allocators of resources, that hyper-regulation has played a role in hampering American industry, that there is a critical need for governmental economic discipline, that runaway environmentalism and era-of-limits ideology is the truly nostalgic doctrine of our times -- these ideas are not only not "simplistic," but they are shared by most Americans and, by now, by Jimmy Carter and most his appointees. In all fairness, these ideas, presently at the cutting edge of public policy thinking, are typically Republican and conservative themes. Sen. Ted Kennedy was not far from wrong when he said Carter was "a Reagan clone."

Reagan speaks in one-liners. The essence of human intelligence and wit is to distill complicated thoughts into simple language. That skill is certainly at the core of politics. Have you ever noticed that we quote one-liners not paragraphs? Give me liberty or give me death; I regret that I have but one-liners go give to my country.

Reagan would be a 9-to-5 president. I don't know Gov. Reagan's work habits. I don't care much about them either. Let us assume (probably wrongly) that the 9-to-5 schedule is accurate. (Won't he attend State Dinners?) Anyone who thinks that by working a few extra hours a day a president can really "manage" a $600 billion government does not understand the process. Can you think of a presidential decision, save one, that must be made in final form between 5-p.m. of one night and 9 a.m. of the next morning? And if the missiles must be launched on warning, one can assume that the fellow with "the football" would be able to track down the president somewhere, even if he's watching his old movies in the White House theater. All of which leads to . . .

Reagan's hand on the red button. Well, just listen to the hawks these days. They're the ones who are saying we're outgunned, and we better be quiet and rebuild. They know how to count.

Reagan is dumb. I've never met the man, but I'm very, very dubious about this. So many allegedly smart people wanted that nomination; so many smart people want to be president. Yet it was Reagan who won the nomination and he may well become president. It is possible that old dummies knows something that all the smarties never figured out?

He'll impose a puritan right-wing morality on us all. Huh? Twice married, 40-odd years in Sin City, life in the movie colony, four adult children who lead lives that are somewhat less than square. Forget it.

Now, I have policy problems with Reagan, too. He has indeed said some extreme things over the years. And I've got some problems with the way his campaign rhetoric sounds these days. After all, it is conservative economists who say 6 1/2 percent unemployment is really "full" employment given the structure of the labor force -- so how come 8 percent is depression-level? I've never much liked crisis-mongering by liberal Democrats; I don't like it any better from conservative Republicans.

I also have, by the way, some policy problems with John Anderson, another able and qualified candidate who is deprecated these days. "Self-righteous," they say, "boring," "inconsistent," a "spoiler." Yet Anderson has a 20-year record in the House that is generally sound, and I have no doubt that the Republic could survive four years of his stewardship if that is the (unlikely) result this year.

Now, you may well have your own problems with each of the candidates. (There are no perfect ones, you know.) You should weigh those problems you have more carefully than usual this year. It's an important election. But please don't sulk away, grumbling about how terrible the choices are.

Remember that the idea that both candidates were no good was also put forth in 1960. In fact, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote a short book rebutting that view called "Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference?" In 1932 Walter Lippman patronized FDR as a nice young man who wants to be president. And it was Abraham Lincoln who was described by contemporary critics as a primitive.

We do not know how history will rate Carter's first term and we know even less about how the presidential term of 1981-85 will be seen. I see no reason to think that it will be a disaster with either Carter or Reagan as president. And I do know this: Both men went through a torturous and open process to get where they are now. That process, for all its flaws, which are many, has legitimized their candidacies. That is no small matter. I guess we've all learned those last decades that nothing works quite as well as we had hoped -- surely not the best-laid plans of governments. It's a good idea at such humbling times to think of process. It's often more important than substance.

Our national greatness derives not from great presidents, but from bold, innovative and free Americans and from a remarkable, if sometimes chaotic, process. Our next president will be freely chosen. He will have been exposed to electoral pressure from every conceivable group. He will have faced the press and the nation. He will be peacefully inaugurated to do the best he can in a troubled world. He will be helped by aides, advisers, political allies and political opponents who wish him well for the nation's sake. He will lead a country with a remarkable history, with a still-patriotic population, with untold resources and whose best days, I think, are yet to come.

All that's good training and a good backdrop against which to perform a difficult job. My guess is we'll do all right whoever is elected.