Until recently, the Reagan-Bush administration had staunchly opposed any increase in the minimum wage.

But then, in what Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy called an "election-year diversion," George Bush softened his stanceIn response to this nudge, the Senate recently started acting on a long-stalled bill to hike the minimum wage.

Yet this switch puts the vice president in the awkward position of abandoning many of his supporters and ignoring his party's platform, which correctly refers to hikes in the minimum wage as "job destroying."

There are plenty of studies to back up that description. For example, the Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that the Kennedy plan to gradually increase the minimum wage to $4.55 an hour by 1991 will eliminate 250,000 to 500,000 jobs from the economy.

Why? Because as the minimum wage rises, many employers can no longer afford to keep marginal workers on the payroll.

The workers hurt the most are usually the younger, less-skilled, and minority workers. So much for the notion that hiking the minimum wage - which has been at $3.35 since 1981 - is an act of compassion toward those who need help the most.

What's more, the losses to workers must be counted in more than just jobs and incomes destroyed by a higher minimum wage. Also lost is the chance to learn skills that would help many workers get higher-paying jobs.

Bush's new stance is poor politics as well as bad economics. It puts him in the position of me-tooing the Democrats and alienating supporters who see the folly of escalating the minimum wage. The vice president clearly needs to re-think his stance on this issue.