Although most of the attention on national security issues has shifted, reasonably enough, to the incoming Reagan administration, the most interesting such struggles during the next few years will be within the Democractic Party. The leaders of many of the interest groups that claim to represent the traditional Democratic constituencies have convinced themselves over the last deacade or so that they must be the enemies of increased Ameraican military power.

This has been largely for two reasons. First, money -- what you spend on tanks you can't spend on schools or welfare, nor can you keep it. This is, however, an ageless problem of government. Second, and perhaps more important, the agony of Vietnam introduced a new element and led the interest-group spokesmen and many liberal Democratic politicians to attack the existence of American military-power as a way to curtail its exercise. Throughout much of the 1970s, the halls of the Senate office buildings, for example, were jammed with young staff members looking for a weapons system to have their senator oppose. They, and their friends in the executive branch, are now typing up their resumes in no small measure because the voters understood what many of the elected officials did not -- that caution in using military power is wise, but unilateal restraint in obtaining it in the face of a massive buildup by a potential enemy is extremely dangerous.

Planned, purposeful self-denial of military capability was new to the Democratic Party in the last '60s and in the '70s. It was not too many years ago that no would have even considered equating conservative Republicans with strong support for defense and liberal Democrats with opposition to it. Herbert Hoover laid down only three ships a year for the Navy in his administration. It was Franklin Roosevelt and Carl Vinson who preciently built the Navy -- during the 1930s -- that we needed rather badly in 1941. When John Kennedy ran against Nixon (and against Eisenhower's record) in 1960, it was not an aberration for him to stress how sluggish our record in space and rocketry had been compared with the Soviets'.

The theory of self-denial of military capability as a tool of national self-control is a recently grafted branch on the world's oldest political party -- a branch that the electorate has now vigorously pruned. Yet the graft still sprouts -- new organizations and committees are budding even before the first snowfall. Copies of the 1972 McGovern campaign mailing list are being dusted off once again to help save America from militarism.

But before the Democrats reach for their checkbooks or wade out through the autumn rains to their first organizational meeting for 1984, they should pause and reflect. There are plenty of methods -- the War Powers Resolution among them -- to restrain the imprudent use of military force. Denial of miitary capability is an unnecessary and potentially dangerous tool to that useful end. Further, many of even the liberal Democrats' concerns are not incompatible with having a strong defense capability. Many Democrats support arms control, for example. Well and good -- but bilateral arms control with the Soviets presupposes that they think we have enough ourselves to give them some incentive to make concessions. SALT I exists only because we once had a vigorous ABM program -- not because the Soviet government is full of the milk of human kindness.

In the meantime, how about focusing arms control efforts on the most urgent threat -- nuclear-weapons proliferation? The possibility, even probability, that the sporty trio of Libya's Qaddafi, Pakistan's Zia and Iraq's Saddam Hussein will all have nuclear weapons by the end of this decade should be enought to concentrate the mind. American military strength helps contain such problems because it is only such strength that can form the basis for regional stability to discourage such developments or, if these and other nations do develop nuclear weapons, to deter their use.

Similarly, many Democrats will want to rely on diplomacy, to promote economic development in the Third World and to ensure that we all appreciate the intractability and bloody-mindedness of such forces as Islamic religious rivalries and the rest. They are right. Little in the world today will yield to military bluster. But will we not be less likely to bluster, or need to bluster, if we and everyone else know we're strong? Will the American people not be more likely to help alleviate hunger in the world once they see that they have taken care of providing for their own military security? The calmest and most clearheaded poker player of all is the felow sitting there with aces back to back.

In the last analysis, the voters decided, in part, that many of the politicians who wanted to deny us military strength were showing that they had no confidence in this nation's judgment and self-control to use that strength only when it was essential -- that many of the liberal Democrats wanted to keep us paralyzed to avoid further Vietnams. The voters came to feel much the way Bertolt Brecht did when, toward the end of his life, he observed the East Germans' revolt of 1953 and noted that the Authorities were unhappy with and did not trust the people. Perhaps, he suggested wryly, it was time for the Authorities to find a new people to govern.