The election of 1984 has already begun. In secret places, the president-making cadres -- money raisers, media managers, public opinion specialists, voter analysts, direct mail solicitors, et al. -- are gearing up. Somewhere the hopefuls, consulting raw ambition and brute stamina, are deciding to take the plunge. For we are entering the age of the perpetual campaign designed, in one apt description, for "unemployed egomaniacs."

Thirty-six primaries and no sign of slackening off next time; mandated delegate slates so that the party's choice has been reached well before the nominating convention meets; conventions doubled in delegate size over the past two decades and ever more carnivalesque now that their role has eroded; media hype that transforms the long marathon into a combo horse race and Super Bowl series while reporters define for us who is winning and losing and solemnly announce the victor before the voters finish going to the polls. The goal seems to be to produce catatonia in candidates and citizens alike.

The time has come, as an urgent priority of governance well before 1984, to consider how presidential selection can better serve its intended purpose: to identify and encourage the most worthy candidates, to engage the serious concerns of all the people and to choose a leader.

No other function of our living Constitution has changed more radically from the Founding Fathers' intent. At Philadelphia, they gave no serious consideration to popular elections, which George Mason derided as "a choice by the blind." Instead, they established an electoral college, which would, in Alexander Hamilton's words, discourage those with "talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity."

The great democratic impulse in America could not remain content with such a meritocratic system. First came "King Caucus" in Congress, then popular elections and party nominating conventions. Much more recently, the rebellion against party bosses spawned the preferential primaries. All these reforms marched under the banner of exercising more perfectly the will of the people.

Then how come so many people are outraged at the way we pick presidents? We are tired of what, under the guise of grass-roots democracy at work, has become a highly manipulated contest managed by those with demonstrated capacity for "low intrigue and the little arts of popularity."

So what is to be done?

A modest reform would look to how we can achieve a balanced and rational process for president-picking, designed for an era of enduring crises. It would contemplate simple changes of federal law as well as state and party rules. Not constitutional amendment but an enlightened public philosophy should guide the way.

Several restraints against excess occur to me as starting propositions. One would seek not to eliminate party primaries but simply to confine them to an appropriate duration and role. Party rules as well as amendment to the Federal Campaign Financing Act could stipulate that spending for the campaign should commence no earlier than May or June of election year; all state primaries could be grouped on alternate Tuesdays over a two-month span. New Hampshire may take offense at being denied its early day in the television sun, but I doubt if the republic will suffer.

A second reform would apply the rule of reason to the primary's mandate. Committed candidate slates could bind only a fraction of the state delegation to the national nominating conventions. A substantial portion of the delegation would include -- or be chosen by -- the state's party and elected leadership, remaining free to commit their votes at the convention. These "thinking" delegates, in Terry Sanford's phrase, would transform the convention into a deliberative forum. Visions of return to smoke-filled rooms? I doubt that secret deals could survive very long now that reporters outnumber the delegates. Witness Reagan's futile effort to negotiate secretly with Gerald Ford the role of the vice presidency.

The nominating convention would become far more credible as a consensus-seeking institution if reduced in size and enlarged in serious purpose. Party conventions in other Western democracies manage to avoid circus atmospherics. In Great Britain, cabinet officers and other party leaders remain on the platform throughout the proceedings and engage freely in the give and take. American conventions could be scaled down from their Valhalla dimensions and robust dialogue substituted for stupefying monologue.

Finally, the last stretch of the campaign would benefit if purposeful use of electronic communication could take the place in larger degree of frantic jet-hopping. How many citizens actually see the nominees in the flesh or hear more than perfervid snatches of argument? Televised forums, interviews, documentaries and genuine debate have the potential, if we would only employ them, for creating a Greek marketplace of political dialogue.

Some will argue that our system for picking presidents is no worse than it has ever been, so why bother? The contest this time delivered a decisive electoral verdict from those who went to the polls. No blood in the streets. But despite the hyperbolic campaign, the downward trend of voter turnout continues -- lowest on Nov. 4 since 1948. We may be approaching the 50 percentile of citizen anger or anomie.

Our latest victor will be obliged, if he desires reelection, to commence his campaign strategies almost from the day he reaches the Oval Office. Certainly his would-be successors will be thus engaged. To continue existing trends confronts the nation with a situation in which the unending contest to choose someone to govern does fundamental damage to the increasingly difficult task of governing.