The Democrats have made a deal. In 1968 and 1972, they couldn't make a deal and they lost. Frightened by the possible loss of power in 1980, they've made one and now have a decent chance to win.

People think that political deals are dirty things, contrived in the dark of night by men of questionable virtue. There is a perverse attitude abroad in the land that says that politics must be conflict, that anything short of open war is dishonest, that compromise is the enemy of principle. But if there is one reason why the peculiar form of representative government embodied in our Constitution has survived, it is that the political system it spawned has been consistently pragmatic. If Americans desire diversity, there must be accommodation; and if two men in the same party want the same office, it is best if they agree that one shall go before the other and that they will assist each other rather than waste their energies in futile combat.

Kennedy made the first move. On Monday, after the rules fight has been lost, he announced that he would not have his name placed in nomination at this convention. In so doing, he saved Carter the embarrassment of being roundly booed just as he was renominated, acknowledged that he was willing to cooperate in Carter's election in 1980 and commenced his own campaign for nomination and election in 1984.

What Kennedy asked in return for his support was that Carter accede to Kennedy's claim to party leadership. Carter may be reelected, but the moment this occurs he becomes a lame duck, unable to run again. And Kennedy left no doubt of his intention to seize control of his party as soon as the election is over. Of course, Carter may not win, but Kennedy can be believed when he says he does not wish this to happen. Far better a lame duck Democrat than a Republican capable of using the powers of the office on behalf of his own reelection in 1984.

Carter accepted the offer. He did so by giving Kennedy his head on the platform, taking no action to diminish Kennedy's role at the convention and registering no disapproval of Kennedy's claim to party leadership. Carter may be a disaster as president, but he isn't a bad politician. Kennedy has something Carter needs -- the loyalty of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Without it, Carter is a loser; with it, he isn't far from reelection.

The test of a good politician is whether he can recognize his circumstances and is willing to address the hard business of changing them. Many men want to be president; only a handful are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to win the office. In Carter's case, this involves giving tacit recognition to Kennedy's 1984 candidacy. I am sure there are few things as repugnant to Carter as the thought that Kennedy might succeed him. But Carter is a politician and, when something must be done, a good politician realizes that his own feelings don't count.

This is a good deal for both Kennedy and Carter and probably a good deal for the Democratic Party, since it provides a framework of order to govern the party over the next four years. If Kennedy works hard for Carter, he can do much to lay claim to the loyalty of southern and western party interests that otherwise might not find his 1984 candidacy attractive. For Carter's part, having the loyalty of the liberal wing of his party without having to be seen begging for it removes the biggest single obstacle to his reelection. It doesn't matter that liberal Democrats will only be giving their support because of expediency. In the business of amassing support, the pragmatic reason for supporting a candidate can be just as effective as agreement with his stands on the issues. The Democrats have been the party that has historically understood this.

Of course, as is true with all political deals, those who were not represented in the beginning will suffer. Vice President Mondale, although he clings to the vice presidency, has seen his future compromised. In a nomination system that depends entirely on the sentiments of primary voters, the vice presidency is not worth as much as it was when party leaders made the choice. Primary voters don't reward a man for loyalty, don't give him credit for raising the party's money, don't understand that they may owe the vice president a shot at the presidency. It is no longer true that a vice president can call in the political debts that he has earned.

Now, as a result of the Carter-Kennedy arrangement, Mondale must also face the fact that his natural constituency, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, now belongs to Kennedy and that Carter has accepted this fact. Boxed, stripped of the power to carve out an identity separate from Carter's by the loyalty demanded by his office, Mondale has no control over his future. If Kennedy responds to his recognized leadership well, Mondale is through. If Carter is less than perfect in a second term, Mondale will be the one to pay; if the ticket loses this fall, he goes down with it. His only realistic hope for a better future involves the possibility that Kennedy will not respond well to the demands of leadership. But Kennedy is wiser than he was a year ago; losing will at least educate you.

We Republicans might have preferred that Kennedy listen to some of his supporters and tear down the Democratic house in the interests of maintaining his purity; we might have hoped that Carter would have rejected Kennedy's claim to future leadership. But as a politician at odds with those who would make my profession merely a playground where people of limited service and no real dedication to accommodation can blackmail those who are still willing to assume the tremendous burdens of power, I am heartened that two men who want the same office, don't like each other and have no common ground upon which to ever be friends have had the good sense to help each other.

It is often said that politics makes strange bedfellows. Well, it does, but that is a good thing about it, something to be admired about it. If diversity is desirable, we must render equal honor to those who recognize that arguments must subside and the serious business of acquiring the power must take priority. What good is served by surrendering the power to your enemies, who will use it to annihilate those very things that you treasure the most? Carter and Kennedy have recognized this fact, and they deserve some credit for it.