The smart money had it that this year's presidential campaign would concentrate (and turn, in the end) on inflation, jobs, pocketbooks.

It can't happen a moment too soon. To the extent that attention has soas so far focused on foreign policy and defense, when the slanging has not been reckless to the point of irresponsibility, it has been disingenous (or puerile) to the point of endangering mental health.

Somewhere a Seasoned Observer is sagely observing that it was ever thus. Incumbents have always exploited and manipulated developments, cynically, for political gain. Challengers unfailingly flog incumbents for crimes of commission or omission close to treason. Both have routinely proclaimed their innocence of excess.

Was there not John F. Kennedy's mythical missile gap in 1960? And Henry Kissinger's peace-is-at-hand promise in 1972? And Lyndon Johnson's pledge in 1964 that American boys wouldn't be sent to fight wars that Asian boys ought to fight -- while he was using the Tonkin Gulf "incident" to nail down public and congressional support for a wider war?

Indeed, there was. But these are remembered exceptions to the rule. This time around, intemperance, assaults on integrity and a general impulse to deal in personality as distinct from programs or purposes are the rule. And while this may be no more than a difference in degree, it is a difference quite big enough to have made a shambles of what might otherwise have been a useful and sorely needed argument over how best to manage national security.

How come? There is always the "national malaise" theory, attributed to Jimmy Carter, but widely shared. Its proponents see large numbers of Americans still gripped by a post-Vietnam syndrome, uncertain about the right course, their confidence in authority shaken if not shattered, given to excessive emotional swings. And this violatility, the reasoning goes, invites more of the same in our public debate. v

Perhaps. But if there is a national psychosis at work here, presidential candidates are in business to cure it, not catch it. My own sense of it is that in both the Carter and the Reagan camps, it comes naturally -- the flakiness, the incoherence, the abysmal absence of restraint.

With the Reagan campaign, it is form winning over substance. It is vice presidential candidate George Bush complaining about the Carter "groin kicking" while hollering on television that this is the umpty-umpth day of captivity for the American hostages in Iran "and the Carter administration had done absolutely nothing about it. This is a shame on America."

Eight men killed at Desert One, literally hundreds of diplomatic initiatives, economic sanctions -- that's not "nothing." Nothing successful, it's true. But for Bush to have raised that point might have obliged him to say what a Reagan administration would have done, or would do. He didn't say.

It is Reagan and the Republican Party beginning with an unequivocal pledge of arms "superiority," a proposition that is at least arguable. But subsequent pronouncements have reduced that pledge to mush. "How is military superiority dangerous?" Reagan asked rhetorically at the American Legion convention the other day. Avoiding the obvious answer that it invites the Soviets to catch up, he went on in the same speech to say that "we must restore true essential equivalence."

"Essential equivalence"? Where's the issue with Jimmy Carter there?

With the Carter campaign, it is substance transformed into a look of the purest political expediency. When his opponent is saying that "all over the world we can see that in the face of declining American power, the Soviets and their friend are advancing," it behooves the president to present a different picture. But when the picture emerges in the form of leaked secrets having to do with a new nuclear war plan or a supersensitive prototype military aircraft invisible to radar, the appearance of cynical and improper contrivance is undeniable.

And never mind the legitimate argument that in the interests of deterrence (which ought to be in everybody's interest) the existence, as distinct from the details, of both the war plan and the aircraft is something the Soviets actually ought to be aware of -- and almost certainly already were.

The same, familiar Carter administration ham-handedness is on display in the Middle East. A life-support system for the West Bank autonomy talks until after the election is a diplomatic imperative. For Carter, the ability to project a continuing Camp David "process" is a political plus. To achieve the former while appearing to be principally engaged in the latter takes talent of a sort for which the Carter crowd is justifiably renowned.

What seems to have been lost sight of in both camps, in short, is that one or the other -- Reagan or Carter -- is actually going to have to tend to the national security from the White House next year. The way they are going about getting there promises to make that task immeasurably more difficult.