The Democratic presidential nomination race has barely started, and already the danger of wretched excess is evident. Every time the Democratic candidates get together to woo a particular constituency, they egg each other on to make more and more outlandish promises.

It started in Sacramento in January. The competition for cheers from the "nuclear freeze" crowd at the state convention drove Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and former vice president Walter F. Mondale to debate the speed with which each would move to seek out Soviet President Yuri Andropov for arms negotiations. One said he would be in Geneva to open the talks the day after he was sworn in; another said he would pick up the "hot line" to Moscow the very night he was inaugurated; and so on.

Next it was the bidding for support of the teachers at the National Education Association convention in Philadelphia, where dark-horse Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) trumped everybody by pledging $14 billion a year of new federal aid--including a minimum $5,000-a-year pay raise for every teacher.

Last weekend, the tour took the Democrats to San Antonio for the National Women's Political Caucus, and the question was how far each would go in pledging to work for enactment of the Equal Rights Amendment next time around.

Former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew, as usual, was absent. Sen. John Glenn, as usual, was restrained. He said he would "use the full power of the presidency to get the amendment passed by the Congress and ratified by the states," but made it clear he would stop at exhortation.

Hollings, as usual, was colorful and expansive. "I'd be an LBJ," he said. "I'd give a little and take a little, and we'd swap around and have that thing passed in a year's time."

Mondale was a bit wordier, but the message was the same. "I will do what's necessary to re- propose and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment," he said. "A president can be very influential. . . . I have worked in the White House . . . and you find that people come from all over the country wanting something, and as president of the United States, I'll say, 'I'll help you reach an honorable objective if you'll go back to your state and deliver for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.'"

Cranston was even more explicit. "I will lobby and lead," he said. "I will use the leverage of the federal government." And then, referring to concrete punishments and rewards for state legislators, he added, "If I am president, the Equal Rights Amendment would not fail for lack of a bridge or transportation project."

Hart was not to be outdone: "The power of the presidency has not been used to the extent it can to achieve ratification," he said. "I think it extends not only to bringing normal political pressure to bear on members of the president's own party, but . . . I'm talking about specific federal projects to be used to bring around people who are on the fence on that or whose support is at least lukewarm. And I intend to do that."

Think for a moment about what is being said here. The Constitution gives the president no direct role in the amending process, which is the province of Congress and the state legislatures. Duke University law professor Walter Dellinger, an authority on that process, says that while examples abound of "wheeling and dealing" in the legislatures and Congress on constitutional amendments, he knows of only one case where the government in Washington used its "coercive powers" to secure ratification of amendments.

That occurred when Congress, after the Civil War, required the former Confederate states to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments as a condition for regaining their standing in the Union and their representation in Congress. "As a condition for a treaty of peace to end a bloody war," Dellinger said, "it may well be defensible, but not as a precedent in any other circumstance."

But here are four men seeking the presidency who imply or baldly state that they would use the powers of that office, not just to urge, but to induce the state legislatures to change the fundamental charter of the country.

As a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, I have to wonder what that says about their confidence in the merits of the proposal. As a citizen, I have to wonder about their understanding of the proper relationship between national and state governments in our system of federalism. As a journalist who lived through the Watergate era, I have to wonder what they learned about restraint on presidential power. And as a prospective voter in the 1984 election, I have to wonder what--if anything--some ot these men would not promise in order to gain the prize of the presidency.

Let's be honest. If Ronald Reagan were threatening to use federal contracts to block the Equal Rights Amendment or induce states to pass his favored prayer-in-school or anti-abortion amendments, there would be a huge outcry. There can't be a double-standard on this kind of question.