Washington — Is it possible that the President will at some point sit down with Soviet leaders and hammer out a peace treaty on a nuclear arms freeze?
The question is not unrealistic. Some who know Ronald Reagan well think that he is positioning himself to be able to move to some middle ground which he and Brezhnev could agree to. They say he will continue to insist on putting a United States arms buildup in place, legislatively. But, despite his assessment of a current Soviet arms ''superiority,'' his aim is simply to be able to negotiate from strength.
Addressing the nuclear arms question, GOP Congressman Richard Cheney of Wyoming told reporters the other day:
''It would be easier for Reagan to sell such a treaty at home than for Carter to sell it here. Reagan would be in a better position to sell the idea that the treaty was in the United States' interests - that it was fair, equitable.'' Cheney was a chief of staff under President Ford.
Democratic Sen. Daniel Moynihan also sees the possibility of the President making some startling move in a bid to quiet fears of a nuclear disaster. Moynihan, who himself argues that the process of ending the arms race can only be fostered by first insisting on some arms reductions, thinks Reagan may be setting the stage for a freeze that will necessitate concessions from both sides.
''Would it be like Nixon going to China--in terms of keeping the support of the right- wingers?'' Moynihan was asked. ''I think so,'' he said. ''This could be his big issue.''
Actually, Reagan's supposed hawkishness already is in question. A New York Times editorial comments: ''He remains tenaciously attached to extraordinary increases in defense spending. Still, for all the growling, his conduct concerning the Russians has been tame, even timid.''
The Times, an unlikely place to find an opinion that concedes that Reagan has even the slightest tinge of dovishness in him, goes on: ''Jimmy Carter imposed a grain embargo on the Kremlin as punishment for Afghanistan. What did the ferocious Mr. Reagan do about it? He lifted it. What has the ferocious Mr. Reagan done to retaliate for martial law in Poland? He hasn't even imposed credit controls. What has he done about that 'unequal' and 'unverifiable' SALT II treaty? Though it's still unratified, he has made a quiet deal with Moscow to observe it.''
The parties seem far apart. The Soviets will unilaterally freeze their missile force west of the Urals aimed at Europe, says Brezhnev, if NATO does not deploy new Pershing II and cruise missiles, or until agreement on mutual reductions is achieved. Reagan responds that ''a freeze simply isn't good enough because it doesn't go far enough.''
But should the President move toward some middle ground and agree to a treaty that would end the arms race, he would have, as Richard Cheney (a strong defense advocate himself) indicates, the advantage of being perceived as a hard-liner on defense matters.
Those Americans who talk now as if they would only settle for a substantial US nuclear missile buildup and a decided arms edge over the Soviets might be less than happy over such a move. But Reagan has credibility with them. They know he has never been soft on communists. So, doubtless grudgingly, they could be expected to accept such a pact.
Thus the prospects of such a treaty being ratified by Congress would be good. Carter could not achieve it. But Reagan could.
Nixon shocked many of his hawkish supporters--even angered some--when he opened the door to US-China relations by traveling to Peking and when he pursued detente with the Soviets. By and large these hard-liners concluded that, if Richard Nixon, a proven anticommunist, was doing these things, there must be no danger in it since he would not let himself be fooled by communists.
Will Mr. Reagan in a sense ''go to China,'' as Nixon did? The possibility is now a subject of active speculation.