In any other democracy in the world, a Cabinet official who subjected his chief, his party and his cause to the massive embarrassment that Attorney General Edwin Meese III caused President Reagan, the Republicans and the conservative movement last week would be out of a job. He would not have to be asked to resign. He would know it was his simple duty. But in this administration, Reagan neither expects nor enforces any standard of accountability -- especially toward such loyal old friends as Meese.
That is the chilling aftermath of the comic episode of the nomination of Judge Douglas Ginsburg for the Supreme Court. It is a stark reminder of the appalling ineptitude of the central figures in a government that must somehow lead this country for another 14 months.
Meese is a personally pleasant man who has had more than his share of family tragedy these past few years. But as a government official, he has been a disaster -- a man whose narrowness of view is matched by his incompetence. His tangled personal affairs have twice earned him investigations by special prosecutors. He has been involved in a string of blunders, stretching from the ''Why wake Reagan?'' decision during the U.S.-Libyan aerial dogfight in the first year of the presidency to the bungled Iran-contra investigation, which allowed Ollie North and Fawn Hall time for their ''shredding party.''
Even by the elastic standards in this administration, this latest episode fairly shouts for Meese's resignation. Consider for a moment what occurred. The chief law enforcement officer of the government, fulfilling one of his most vital duties, advised the president of the United States to nominate a certain individual for a vacancy on the Supreme Court of the United States.
''Advised'' is putting it mildly, for Meese pushed hard for Ginsburg, against the advice of the White House chief of staff and the counsel to the president, who questioned whether Ginsburg could be confirmed. He vouched personally to the president that Ginsburg met the ideological standards Reagan had set for the job and was not vulnerable to the liberal counterattack that sank Judge Robert Bork.
Meese did so in the face of the fact that Ginsburg had an extremely sketchy record: no private law practice; one hour of courtroom argument on one case; the lowest passing rating from the American Bar Association for appointment to a lower level judgeship; and only one year of judicial service, with fewer than 20 opinions as a member of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Meese failed to discover or to alert the president to other facts whose disclosure forced Ginsburg to withdraw in less than two weeks. Conservatives who were properly indignant at the defeat of Bork had to squirm at the quick revelation that dope, divorce and abortion -- the unholy trio of threats to their cherished ''family values'' -- had all been at one time or another familiar parts of the life style or medical experience of Ginsburg and his physician wife.
When Meese appeared to lack the guts to clean up the mess he had made, William Bennett, the conservative movement's favorite secretary of education, stepped forward to educate Ginsburg on the political preposterousness of the situation. For the first time in seven years, Reagan may have sensed the value of having relented on his ambition to eradicate the Department of Education.
''Do what you think is right,'' the ever-detached president told Bennett when the latter phoned the White House to say that he was about to push Ginsburg overboard. But Reagan would not do it himself. Indeed, far worse than the Ginsburg fiasco is the fact that Reagan tolerates it.
Why is there no hint of a shake-up? ''The president couldn't stand to lose Ed Meese, especially now,'' said one influential Republican senator to whom I put the question. ''Bill Casey is dead; Paul Laxalt has left the Senate; Cap Weinberger and Bill Clark have quit the Cabinet; Mike Deaver and Lyn Nofziger are up to here with legal troubles. Meese is about the only old ally he has left. That's a helluva spot to be in when you're 76 years old and your term is running out.''
Put in those stark terms, the tolerance of Meese's towering ineptitude is both humanly understandable and profoundly unnerving. There must be 200 able conservative Republican lawyers with the right political credentials and experience whose counsel at the Cabinet table and in White House meetings would be sounder, wiser and more useful to the president and the country than Ed Meese's.
The fact that Ronald Reagan is not looking for one of them, and is not even thinking about what he is missing, indicates just how feeble the resources of this administration really are. With more than a year left for it to manage -- or mismanage -- the fate of this nation, keep your fingers crossed.