"On vision -- you have to have a vision. Mine is that education should be the No. 1 thing." -George Bush, Republican Candidates' Debate, Jan. 8.

Today's hot political news is Bob Dole's tax returns and George Bush's Iran advice. But for me the high point of the Iowa Republican debate was George Bush unfurling his vision of America. It doesn't exactly shimmer like a city on a hill or thrill like blood, sweat and tears. But, as visions go, it will have to do. This is not the age of giants.

Eisenhower, it is said, once declared that "our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith -- and I don't care what it is." These days, the media demand vision, and they don't much care what it is. The politicians have responded in kind. George Bush may even be aware that his falls short of Churchillian. But they want one -- he's got one. Bob Dole, where's yours?

In defense of Bush's hilarious claim to vision, it must be admitted that he gave the demand its due. Vision is a highly overrated political commodity. It has become little more than a search for novelty. What country, after all, demands that it be offered a new future every four years? Vision is a politician's promise to take the country to a place where no one else has thought to take it before. The excursion might be worth the risk a few times per century or perhaps once every generation. But does the nation need not just a new guide but a new compass and lodestar every leap year?

The quadrennial need for an infusion of vision is an advertisement of severe political ennui. It reflects little more than an appetite for the new, an appetite better filled by Hollywood than Washington. Most pols simply can't satisfy it. I remember a lunch in 1983 when John Glenn, then running second to Walter Mondale in the polls, was asked what vision he was offering the country. Glenn, trying not to look stumped, offered R&D. He did not exactly say he'd make R&D the No. 1 thing, but it was close. He'd have done better with his audience if he had said, "You want vision? See an optometrist. I'm just running for president."

The vision dearth is particularly acute this year. Bob Dole even has trouble with the less cosmic notion of goals. When the moderator opened the Iowa debate by asking Dole what his goals for the country were, Dole extolled his own managerial abilities. "But what are the goals?" insisted the moderator. "And that's where I want to go," shot back Dole. Then, realizing he hadn't talked about going anywhere, Dole dutifully offered a list of things he intends to bequeath to the 21st century, including "that we had long-term foreign policy goals."

Dole is admirably straightforward. Vision is not what we need in a president right now. After Reagan, we probably can't afford it. Dole offers not a vision but a person, hands-on and competent. He presents himself as the Republican least like Reagan the person -- detached, dotty and aloof. Which explains both Dole's early rise in the polls and his recent stagnation. His sudden emergence from the pack was a direct reaction to the Iran-contra affair. He rose to the extent that Reagan fell. And vice versa: his current plateau is a function of Reagan's recent summit-related recovery. The hunger for a manager has abated somewhat.

The one Republican who does offer vision is Jack Kemp. Unfortunately, it is the wrong one, which explains his campaign's weakness. Kemp offers a coherent, rounded, optimistic, growth-oriented conservatism. The problem is that this is what Reagan offered in 1980. Only now it has grown old and cracked. When offered as a dream in the hard times of 1980 (hostages, inflation), it could persuade. A decade later, the vision having largely been enacted and thus exposed to reality testing, the idealized version Kemp offers seems merely wishful.

The Democrats' one visionary is Mario Cuomo. He earned the title with his 1984 convention speech. But to do it he had to invent a country riven between have and have not. Unfortunately, America is not so constructed. The idea of America as A Tale of Two Cities, one rich, one poor, did not quite ring true. You got the feeling that Cuomo had confused the French with the American Revolution. Great vision, wrong country. Cuomo has wisely not sought to road test that vision in the campaign.

As a rule, the out-party has a much easier time creating visions. It simply insists on how bad things are, then offers its vision of a better world. When things are demonstrably bad (FDR, Reagan) or stagnant (JFK), vision is easy. The problem for Democrats is that right now times are good. The key real-life economic indicators -- unemployment and inflation, Jimmy Carter's "misery index" -- are positive for the average American. Abroad, the country is at peace, has lost no provinces in this decade, and has just gotten through a big arms control bear hug with the Russians.

The best Democratic strategy for '88 is to argue, quite plausibly, that things are not terribly bad now, but they are going to get bad very soon because of the superficiality and fragility of Reagan's prosperity. But to argue that, you don't need vision. You need the opposite: sobriety, steadiness, a willingness to administer a cold-water bath.

Teddy Kennedy's vision of America, as a wag once put it, is, "I see an America where every working man and woman makes more than the median wage." What the country needs now is a candidate with an idea of how to keep the median wage where it is for the next four years.