The Reagan administration isn't dumb. I'm aware that this simple proposition will strike those who admire the administration as supremely and laughably condescending and those who despise it as an inversion of the truth. But the simple proposition needs stating for an equally simple reason: it is the essential starting point in any discussion of what is going on between the United States and the principal actors in the drama in the Philippines. For this time your friendly U.S. government was not being obtuse, was not reflexively supporting the losing side in yet another Third World disaster or backing an opposition it didn't understand. The Philippines was the one it was ready for, the one it had been diligently working on.

For a couple of years now it has been apparent that serious administration attention was being given over to averting predictable disaster in the Philippines. The politics of the place was under continuous review. Pressure was being brought insistently for required change. Much that has now happened was foreseen by us and worked against, even if it could not, as things turned out, be prevented. Elements of the American government were also in regular, discreet, constructive contact with President Marcos's democratic opposition.

The members of the Reagan administration I have talked to over the years about all this seemed to me mindful of more than the dangers and/or uncertain results of "toppling," as in: toppling the shah, toppling Diem and so forth. They also seemed mindful of the critical truth that even though toppling was not on, Marcos was none of these men, and his country was none of their countries.

It would be a mistake, I was repeatedly told, to confuse the Philippines with those other places; it had a tradition of democratic participation and a capacity for it, even, now, a hunger. The problem in the Philipines would be one of restoration, not of a grafting of alien ways on an unreceptive population. Nor was there in Washington the familiar ignorance and consequent indiscriminate anxiety about the opposition. There were people in our government who knew that opposition well enough not to see potential Castros or Borges or Khomeinis everywhere they looked, yet who also recognized the starkly different and menacing nature of the NPA insurgents in the countryside.

That was the longer-term context in which the Philippine election was approached. The immediate context was strikingly detailed and thorough. In both Manila and Washington, as voting day neared, you could hear the most elaborate range of possible scenarios being discussed, although they did have a common theme. It was widely assumed by then that Corazon Aquino would do pretty well with the voters and that Marcos and his machine would do much to cheat her out of this achievement, although up to the very end few people seemed to think that even with an honest count she would win an actual majority. The stratagems under discussion were mainly meant to protect her strong showing. There was Cardinal Jaime Sin's instruction of the poor as to how it was theologically acceptable for them to have taken the Marcos machine's bribes and yet in good religious conscience not vote for him. There was the poll watchers' stated anxiety about the composition (faulty? tampered with?) of the so- called indelible ink meant as a protection against vote changing. All was being guarded against, and the American government was as thoroughly versed and briefed in these minutiae as everyone else.

Was the election excessively prepared for, then? Did our government become trapped in its assumptions and expectations of how the thing would play out? Not exactly. Around Manila, anti-Aquino people had slapped stickers reading "WALANG ALAM!" ("KNOWS NOTHING!") on Mrs. Aquino's campaign posters. Such surely had also been the view of many in the U.S. government, and not without reason, when the inexperienced candidate first came on the scene. But over time you could see our people responding to the evidence that, whatever her shortcomings, Mrs. Aquino was much more skilled and politically estimable than they had figured; and they also were quick to acknowledge the growth of her strength. So they were not locked into their preconceptions. But two things I think did take them unawares. One was the size of the opposition vote. The other was the defiant, open way in which Marcos went about his theft and intimidation.

Much of what Reagan rightly got into trouble for saying last week -- about how happy the opposition should be that so many voted for them, never mind the count -- seemed tailored for a different outcome. It might even have been considered the right thing to say if Aquino had lost in a close contest in which something far short of massive cheating was assumed, a contest in whose aftermath the opposition needed to be cheered up, even as Marcos was hastened along to the end of his term. But the president's original remarks were all wrong, given what happened. Marcos did more than turn even such conservative and security- minded senators as Nunn and Dole against him. He did more than oblige Aquino to stay in the fight, incidentally creating a potential for terrible violence. He made it impossible for Reagan's government to sneak away from the election scandal.

This administration committed itself early on to political and military reform in the Philippines for practical, not just philosophical, reasons. So it bears some responsibility for the fact that the election was held at all and also for the good-faith outpouring of democratic fervor. It can only walk away from the implications of this outcome at vast cost to the American position and to American self-respect. If it is as smart as it has seemed to be up to now on the Philippines it will associate itself with the effort to get a fair result and reject collusion in Marcos's attempt to subvert it.