There seems to be no way to hold off the silly season any longer. The 1992 election campaign - shudder - has begun. It started, of course, the moment Republicans began accusing Democrats of not being patriotic because on Jan. 12 the majority of congressional Democrats voted against going to war.

President Bush personally may not be making political hay out of the war, but he certainly hasn't slapped the wrists of the Republicans who are - Clayton Yeutter, the new Republican National Committee chairman, and Bush's old Texas friend, Sen. Phil Gramm.Gramm's broadside: "I've heard that the Ba'ath Party (Saddam Hussein's front group) and the Democratic Party have something in common, and that's that they are trying to come up with domestic programs to make them forget about the war."

White House chief of staff John Sununu splurged happily on expectations, saying it was foolish to expect the GOP not to use the votes of Democrats against the war for political gain.

The moment the war was won, naturally, this was was countered by Democrats, who began accusing Bush of having no interest in domestic issues. Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell of Maine bemoaned the time, money and effort spent elsewhere when Americans are suffering.

It was grand, for a few hours, when the country was united behind the goal of getting Saddam's troops out of Kuwait and then bringing home the troops as heroes.

But now, tugged into it against our will, we are engaged in a great self-destructive orgy of savaging prospective candidates, of imputing motives to every word and of giving each event for the next 20 months a political cast.

From now on it will be politics, politics, politics. Charges and countercharges. Who is a better American. Flag factories. Rallies. Parades. TV commercials. Red, white and blue bunting. Oh yes, issues.

All the candidates - Republicans, Democrats, independents, conservatives, Bull Mooses, Darwinists, Larouchies - will talk about the problems: Crime, education, the economy, the economic threat from Japan and Germany, homelessness, AIDS, drugs, broken bridges, potholed highways, red-ink spending.

As usual during election cataclysms, nothing will get done because everybody is pontificating.

It's been pleasant, this brief reprieve. No hysterical outbursts about what is likely to happen months from now in Iowa. No prattling about who might show up in New Hampshire and when.

Democrats thoughtfully and quietly have been analyzing their weaknesses and strengths. Republicans have been consolidating their power without being grating about it.

But that's all past now.

From now on we'll get rafts of political polling data, most of it meaningless.

The big quest now, not surprisingly, is for a Democratic spear carrier.

But everybody knows that somebody will emerge. The race will be run. The political conventions in New York and Houston will be treated as real news instead of forced TV spectacles.

Conventional wisdom, of course, says that Bush will win in a landslide. There are some unhappy souls who wish Bush would choose Colin Powell to run with him and dump Dan Quayle, which Bush won't do. But they have concluded it won't really matter to Bush's re-election chances.

One wonders if it is even remotely possible that the competence and dynamism America displayed in winning the war could translate into a meaningful political dialogue in which real issues are tackled and phony ones are chucked into the trash heap of history.