A FALSE assumption hung over the vice-presidential debate: that a Vice-President Dan Quayle would be at George Bush's elbow, just as Walter Mondale and Mr. Bush were the closest day-to-day advisers to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, respectively. Not so. James Baker III would be the one at Bush's side. Both Bush and Mr. Quayle have been perpetuating the myth that they would be a White House twosome. Bush talks of Quayle as a confidant on policy and decisionmaking - and someone who would say ``no'' if he thought a wrong decision were being made.
Quayle, too, talks of the close relationship that he thinks lies ahead for him. In the debate he described a power role for himself, where he would be sitting on the National Security Council, coordinating the antidrug effort, and heading the space council.
Jim Baker goes way back with George Bush. For years they have been fast friends. They became close political associates back in 1976, when they tried valiantly to get President Ford reelected. By 1980, when Mr. Baker was Bush's presidential campaign manager, these two had become a unit.
Baker would probably not be the presidential chief of staff. Baker has already performed admirably in that capacity, during Mr. Reagan's first term; had he remained he might well have saved the President from the embarrassing entanglements of Iran-contra.
More than likely, Baker would be Bush's secretary of state. Baker's superb performance as secretary of the Treasury, particularly on global fiscal problems, has given him the credentials necessary.
A secretary of state usually has enough to do just taking care of his own assignment, but high positions are shaped by the people who fill them. And Bush would want to consult with Baker on all sorts of important matters, domestic as well as foreign. He doubtless would be on the phone with Baker daily.
And Quayle? He and Bush are really just getting to know each other. Bush must have been greatly impressed by the young man or he wouldn't have selected him. But the vice-president was jolted by Quayle's negative reception.
Bush must have noted that Quayle lacked sure-footedness in his debate and passed muster only on the dubious grounds of not committing a major gaffe.
But Quayle did for the most part stand his ground with Lloyd Bentsen. Thus Bush was able to hail the showing of his junior partner publicly. But was he really impressed by what he saw in Wednesday's debate? And has he been impressed during the weeks since the GOP convention by the character, personality, and performance of the man who was pretty much a stranger to him when he startled the United States political world by choosing him to be his No. 2? Stay tuned.
Bush's final assessment of Quayle would come only after a Bush victory this fall.
Actually, although it seems to have been forgotten, vice-presidents through the years did virtually nothing except to stand by. Not until President Carter decided to put Vice-President Mondale to work in a substantive position as a presidential adviser (and with a White House office next door to his own) was a veep allowed to become a force in governing the nation.
And then President Reagan decided to use Vice-President Bush as a heavily relied-upon teammate. From the very first moment when he met with his new vice-president, Reagan found he liked this man who had been his bitter adversary during the primaries. And he decided to use Bush as an adviser and implementer - even more than Mr. Carter had used Mr. Mondale.
But becoming an influential and useful vice-president doesn't go with the job. There has to be warmth and trust on the part of the president toward his vice-president. That's the ``glue'' in the Reagan-Bush relationship that caused the two to have lunch almost weekly - as well as to talk at least once a day.
But Baker has already won Bush's friendship and trust. Bush has been leaning heavily on him in the campaign - for advice and just simple moral support when needed. This close tie is likely to continue.
And Quayle? At best, he'd sit at the President's table at Bush's left. Baker would be on Bush's right. And if Bush eventually decided Quayle's counsel wasn't worth much, who knows? It wasn't too long ago that Vice-President Spiro Agnew was pushed out of the sight of Richard Nixon to the Executive Office Building. And Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller very soon became frustrated over his lack of influence under President Ford.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.