When Secretary of State George Shultz first presented President Reagan's pet "Democracy Program" to Congress, the response of the critics ranged from quizzical to rude. It had a Rube Goldberg table of organization to carry out mostly warmed-over information and cultural exchange programs.

The basic premise--that the United States has been so busy handing out economic and military aid that it has never gotten around to handing out democracy-- suggested the handiwork of innocents pumped up with ideological fervor. But this was high-priority presidential business. Hadn't Reagan, before the House of Lords in London last June, called for a "crusade" to "foster the infrastructure of democracy" worldwide?

So Congress has been lobbied fiercely; private foundations and institutions have been primed for the role of agents of federally financed democracy-promotion overseas. Thus it is that Congress will almost certainly pass a National Endowment for Democracy Act, and before long the endowment will begin funneling over $30 million a year to the Republican and Democratic parties, the AFL-CIO, the Chamber of Commerce, the Asia Foundation and other private bodies.

If you want a realistic measure of its potential, just ask Ed Derwinski, a veteran of 23 years as a Republican congressman from Illinois and now the counselor of the State Department. He was glad to lend a hand with the program on Capitol Hill because he approves of the overall purpose. But he is also politically street-smart enough to know that there is "not an awful lot" beyond the hype that is new or different about it.

Not even the idea of having private organizations do the government's work--with taxpayers' money--is new. What's different now is that no effort will be made to hide the U.S. government's hand. But a U.S. government stamp tends to rob such activities of a good deal of their force. That problem, and a good many more, would seem to me to raise big questions about just how the Republican and Democratic parties are going to advance the cause of democracy. Derwinski has a partial answer: the two parties will be instructing foreign politicians not so much in the meaning of democracy as "the art of politics--free election procedures, legitimate political behavior, political organization." As he sees it, the Democrats just naturally will be "working with those left of center" and the Republicans, equally naturally, "with those right of center."

Now that sounds like a fine idea, until you examine where this work will be done. Derwinski estimates that there are fewer than 40 countries with something resembling a two-party system. One can imagine the Republican Party providing a political education course for the government of El Salvador. But would the Democrats join in a bipartisan effort? Or would their opposition to Reagan policy in Central America incline them toward "educating" the left? And how long would it then take the Republicans to make a domestic political issue here of the Democrats' "links" to that left.

Nor do I have a clear sense of how any U.S. administration maintains friendly relations with the government in power while one or another of our two political parties is teaching opposition forces how to win their way into office. One has the sense that the Democracy Program is going to be mostly engaged in providing political how-to-do-it courses to the converted-but-untutored in only a relatively few fertile fields for democracy. That could be useful work as long as you don't kid yourself that what is being conducted is a "crusade."