Let us begin with one hypothetical and a couple of semi-reasonable assumptions.

First, imagine you are Vice President George Bush, committed to becoming, in 1988, the first sitting vice president since Martin Van Buren in 1836 to be elected to succeed the president you have served. Then, assume that over the next two years the United States suffers no major setback, either domestic or international, and that President Reagan continues to win the confidence and affection of the nation's electorate. Now, all of that would be good news for George Bush, right?

Wrong. Eight years of popularity and acclaimed Republican stewardship could make things tough for George Bush.

Of course, every would-be successor to Ronald Reagan will suffer from the inevitable comparisons with the Reagan personality and style. But for GOP candidates, especially Bush, most of the party's traditional themes will be unavailable next time.

During the Reagan years, national confidence and optimism have rebounded dramatically. One of the unintended consequences of the Reagan administration is that Americans are, for the first time in years, decidedly positive about the federal government and Congress. It will be politically awkward for a 1988 Republican candidate to campaign, as Reagan and his Republican predecessors did, against that federal government.

And after eight years of Ronald Reagan, that terrible triad -- Waste, Fraud and Abuse -- will certainly have been banished. That old reliable, the balanced budget issue, will be, at best, a wash. A pledge of More of the Same will probably not satisfy a 1988 electorate looking, with Reagan-encouraged confidence and optimism, to questions of the future and the next century.

So, what George Bush needs most of all is an issue and a cause of his own, something that will establish his independent identity.

Like all vice presidents, Bush has a constituency of one: the president. In their vice presidents, American presidents generally value most of all loyalty. But in their presidents, American voters value strength and independence, the perceptions of which are not reinforced by uncritical loyalty. Fortunately for Bush, Ronald Reagan's vigorous mental and emotional health liberate him from having to prove his hairy-chested virility by humiliating his Veep. It's difficult to imagine any show of Bush independence threatening the secure Reagan.

So where can Bush find an issue? On or before March 1, the Commission on Defense Management, chaired by electronics industrialist and former deputy defense secretary David Packard, will make its report to the president on, in the words of its chairman, "weapons that don't work, exorbitant prces for spare parts, illegal charges, and other evidences of a troubled situation." Defense reform, which has mostly been the exclusive political property of congressional Democrats, is a natural for George Bush.

First, Bush's commitment to a strong national defense has not been questioned. After graduating from Phillips Academy, George Bush may have been, at 18, the youngest pilot in the U.S. Navy. Certainly he was the youngest American pilot to be shot down in combat over the Pacific and the youngest to be rescued by an American submarine that outraced a Japanese ship to reach him. Precious few of Bush's critics within the GOP (a majority of whom obviously harbor some bigoted loathing of Bush's background and breeding) have credentials of combat heroism of their own to compare with Bush's.

The national consensus on national defense has been shattered, at least in part by disclosures about $7,600 coffee pots and $640 toilet seats. Overhead, overcharges and overpricing are the antithesis of patriotism. War profiteers, as they illegally line their pockets, undermine public confidence, rob the public purse and, worst of all, leave brave American servicemen vulnerable and, maybe, dead. By championing this issue, Bush will perform both a public, as well as a political, service.

By continuing his present course of publicly caressing the erogeneous zones of the right side of the body politic, Bush will look more and more like a lap-dog than an independent leader. Defense reform provides Bush with the chance to establish daylight and independence for himself, but with nobody able credibly to accuse him of disloyalty to the president.