THANKS to the voters of the state of New York and to the marvel, or horror, of the unique American system of primary elections we now know, six months in advance of the presidential elections of 1988, that the next president of the United States, barring unforeseeable accidents, will be either George Bush of Texas, Connecticut, and Maine, or Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. We also know that the campaign leading up to the elections in November will be unusual in one central respect. There is no ideology in the political record and in the general positions of these two men.
Neither candidate is pro or anti New Deal, pro or anti higher or lower taxes, pro or anti Ronald Reagan's ``social agenda,'' pro or anti dealing with the Soviets.
The campaign will be waged between two professional political figures, both of whom are more interested in efficient and practical government than in ideologies. Both are men of the center. Each has achieved a commendable record of experience in political office without having gotten himself tagged automatically as either ``liberal'' or ``conservative.''
The most interesting feature of the primary elections that culminated in the voting in New York Tuesday is that one by one the candidates with strong positions either to the right or left have been eliminated. For example, Paul Simon was an old-style New Dealer. Jack Kemp was a modern Reagan conservative. Pat Robertson was an evangelical reflecting both the Reagan ``social'' and foreign policy agendas.
George Bush and Michael Dukakis have come through the preliminaries with remarkable, and virtually equal, records of avoidance of commitments to special-interest groups or causes. Seldom in US history have we had rival candidates with so little accumulated baggage. Both are unusual in their proven ability to keep their options open.
Which means that the real problem we of the electorate face during the coming six months is not whether to choose left or right but to discover insofar as we can which man is better suited by temperament and qualities of judgment to be president.
There are, of course, differences that will be helpful in making our ultimate choice.
Mr. Bush's experience in government has been almost entirely in Washington. He has been congressman, ambassador (to China), head of central intelligence. Mr. Dukakis's experience has been entirely in one state, Massachusetts. The contrast means that Bush has had practical experience in foreign policy, while Dukakis has had practical experience in command. Which is more important?
They differ in the types of people each would bring to Washington to help govern.
Bush belongs to the Republican Party establishment. He would most probably surround himself with people drawn from that community. Many, perhaps most, would come from the realms of high finance, business, and industry.
Dukakis is a former member of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The chances are that much of his Cabinet and the higher echelons of government would be filled from the faculties of Harvard and MIT and from academic ``think tanks.''
After the summer conventions in July and August we will have more differences. Each will have chosen a running mate. Each will have influenced the shaping of his party's platform. Each may have given us some indication of probable Cabinet choices.
But the basic fact remains that the electorate has already, through the primary elections process, eliminated from contention candidates of perceptible leaning either way in domestic and foreign policies. Both stand on the present American consensus.
That means that both accept the substance of the original New Deal as modified by the Reagan counterrevolution. It means also that both accept the transition in foreign policy which President Reagan himself has made from confrontation to an experiment in accommodation with the Soviets.