DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN had the gall to say the other day that Mario Cuomo and Bill Bradley should come to the rescue of the soap opera that the Democratic Party's presidential nominating process has become by arriving at next year's convention as favorite sons. The suggestion met with swift and predictable reaction.

"There haven't been any successful favorite sons since God knows when," said William Carrick, who as Richard Gephardt's campaign manager may not qualify as an entirely disinterested observer. Mr. Carrick also doubted that potential favorite sons would risk "standing on the tracks in front of the freight train of presidential campaign momentum." Gov. Cuomo then said on cue that while he found the Moynihan suggestion "flattering," it would be "counterproductive and unfair to the candidates already running."

Unfair to whom? When did the presidential selection process become this decorous cricket match? Sen. Moynihan is right. The present system comes wrapped in the virtues of small-d democracy, obviously no small thing, but it is also in some obvious ways a ludicrous, not to say self-defeating, method for choosing a presidential nominee. About part of it, at least, there is a crazy superficiality; you have the sense that if it does gin up the most qualified candidate, it will do so almost accidentally.

Sen. Moynihan says the party is "fractioning." That's a polite way of saying that, at an important moment for both it and the country, it is in danger of becoming a kind of comic strip as candidates run afoul of the "character issue." Meanwhile, other worthy figures in the party -- Sen. Moynihan named two; Sen. Sam Nunn is a third -- have been put off by the process and won't run. Seven dwarfs -- now six -- may be too strong a characterization, but who believes that, of all the Democrats, these are the six most capable of governing?

We know the civics arguments against the Moynihan position. Favorite-son candidacies would inevitably lead -- Sen. Moynihan's idea precisely -- to a brokered convention where the choice would be made in an old-fashioned smoke-filled room. That's undemocratic, as is the elitist notion that the "best" candidates can somehow be identified and are not those now competing in the primaries and caucuses but others holding back. The true believers also say the present process is indeed a good test, and not just of endurance and babble-speak; witness the winnowing that has already taken place.

But the Moynihan idea is not elitist; it is desperate. A favorite son has to become a favorite somehow; the Moynihan convention -- party leaders should "go to Atlanta and sit down as states and look around at our potential candidates and bargain with each other and pick someone we think can win" -- would hardly be undemocratic. It seems to us the Democrats are in some danger of frittering away an opportunity for both themselves and the country. They need someone with heft to lead them, and it isn't clear the present process will give them that.