IT may appear unseemly for the political prospects of his potential successors to be raised at a sitting President's own breakfast table. But Mr. Reagan understood full well, when asked by reporters the other morning over breakfast whether he would endorse Vice-President Bush for president in 1988, that the process of seeking office must be carried on at the same time as the process of governing. He had himself not so long ago even felt compelled to challenge a sitting Republican President, Gerald Ford, for his party's nomination. As it was, Mr. Reagan had some very nice things to say about Mr. Bush, his rival for the nomination in 1980, whom he had at first resisted taking on as running mate. He was now describing Mr. Bush, one seat away and obviously interested, as the best vice-president the country has had. Would Bush make a good president? ``There isn't much difference between the two jobs,'' he replied modestly. ``Now, he's doing it.''
Mr. Reagan of course cannot hand Mr. Bush the presidency. This is so despite the fact that the White House has been preparing the vice-president, from Day 1 of the first term, to take over at a moment's notice if need be. The White House has brought Bush along on all substantive matters, and it has invested in his image as an alternative leader, if not an alter ego, for the President. Trips abroad, heading commissions, and so forth are not just passing off some of the President's workload; they prepare for continuity in office. Since Jimmy Carter's role-sharing with Walter Mondale, the White House has left behind the idle days of Throttlebottom.
But Mr. Bush knows, despite an anticipated effort to make himself appear the heir apparent, that vice-presidents historically have had a rough time replacing their chiefs. No vice-president in this century has directly succeeded his president by election without first having assumed office to fill out his term.
Getting the party nomination, as Walter Mondale found, may be no cinch.
A fault line in the Republican Party is alreadly clearly drawn between Mr. Bush, still regarded as a moderate establishment Republican despite his service with Mr. Reagan, and Rep. Jack Kemp, a more populist, idea-driven conservative candidate with whom Mr. Reagan had personally felt closer.
Other candidates will fill out the Bush-moderate and Kemp-conservative ranks. Former Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee; Baker's successor as Senate majority leader, Robert Dole of Kansas; and Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas will be talked of as moderates. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick will bask in the speculation as conservative prospects.
Moderate/conservative tickets of Bush/Kirkpatrick or Kemp/Kassebaum are already imaginable.
Bush and Kemp are well under way in campaign readiness -- polling, beefing up staffs, lining up political operatives in the key states. Mr. Kemp even refused recently to break an appointment in New Hampshire to return to Washington for a key party-line vote over the disputed Indiana Eighth District congressional seat.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, who regretted dallying too long over a 1984 run to get into the race, has been moving toward the spotlight on big issues like the MX. Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri are using tax reform to make their parties and themselves more visible.
While one can complain that the presidential race appears interminable, there is another side to the matter that can be appreciated:
Politics, as epitomized in the presidency, has its own process of renewal.
The responsibilities of succession -- preparing the new generation of leaders -- are no less important than the duties of governing.
Mr. Reagan was quite right to acknowledge with good humor the aptness of an inquiry, early as it is, about who might hold his office when he leaves it.