The Democrats having lunch at a table for four in a neighborhood Washington saloon had held leadership positions in their party's presidential campaigns over the past 20 years. They are friends and survivors whose own friendships had survived their being on opposing sides through bruising primaries and bitter platform fights. Because they are campaign veterans, they know that the very same voters who expect a political followership to have interests want their political leadership to have ideas.

But in November of 1985, on the question of the four characteristics required in their 1988 presidential nominee, there was no disgreement at the table. The candidate's four indispensable qualities: 1)To know and be comfortable with himself; 2)to really like politics; 3)to be interested in something outside of himself, especially other people; and 4)to have the ability to lead and to inspire.

What these activist Democrats were acknowledging through their profile of the Ideal Candidate is that Ronald Reagan, in addition to reinvigorating the presidency as our most vital instrument of national leadership, like Franklin Roosevelt, has redefined what we seek in a president. Of course, those Democrats at lunch were describing Ronald Reagan.

In fairness to Democrats, their desperation for power, while acute, has not reached the point where they would pretend to ignore their profound differences with the policies of the Reagan administration. On the morning nearly five years ago when that administration began, Washington Post writer Lou Cannon asked "whether Reagan, after being so agreeably favored by fortune, can demonstrate the compassion for those who have not prospered that is properly expected of an American president." Most Democrats and many Americans (including this one) would answer that Reagan has failed to meet that presidential standard, that as a champion of nationalism but not of community, he has forged a presidency long on private kindnesses and short on public compassion.

But contemporary Democrats sound a lot like the most virulently anti-New Deal Republicans, who wanted a president with the same qualities of leadership, eloquence and confidence that the nation cherished in FDR. The Republicans just completely despised Roosevelt, the man, and his policies, which robbed them of their accustomed power and influence. But through a string of failed or flawed presidencies since 1960, American voters began seeking, then seeing and celebrating, those wondrous qualities of mind and character in each new president that his disappointing predecessor had lacked.

When Jerry Ford succeeded Richard Nixon, few among us did not salute President Ford's openness and naturalness. And while "open" and "natural" were not two words that came easily to the lips when speaking of Nixon, they were not enough to win reelection for Ford. By then -- after Johnson, Nixon and Ford -- we had had enough of politicians in the nation's highest political office. In 1976 Jimmy Carter skillfully converted his own national political innocence into high electoral virtue.

Nearly five years into his presidency, Ronald Reagan has again recast the chief executive's job, this time somewhat after a model used by the turn-of-the-century German general staff. In searching for its future commanders, the leadership of the German army put every officer into one of four groups. The first were the dumb and the lazy, who were going nowhere. Second were the dumb and the energetic (clearly the most troublesome subgroup in all human organizations). Third were the bright and the energetic, who were passed over for command assignments but who were thought to make the best staff people. The command posts were to go to those in the fourth group -- the bright and the lazy -- who were deemed most capable of figuring out the easiest as well as the most sensible means of accomplishing an objective.

Jimmy Carter was obviously bright and relentlessly energetic, while Ronald Reagan is bright, if less obviously so, and not given to bragging about long hours at the office. It's a good bet that successful 1988 candidates will be, like Reagan, optimistic and confident, and will possess, like Reagan, that ability to distill political ideas and positions into graphic, understandable terms. Now some Democrats, realizing that the Gipper has profoundly changed the job description of the office he holds, are looking for somebody to lead them who bears a striking resemblance to the man who has twice crushed them in presidential landslides.