MANY Democrats are grumbling about Michael Dukakis's being the ``wrong'' candidate - that someone else might well have won. Not so! Mr. Dukakis was not the problem. The voters were basically voting for a continuation, and George Bush was ``Mr. Continuity.'' Voters also enunciated an ever-clearer political reality: The Republican Party in presidential elections is as dominant a force in this century as the Democrats were during the years of Franklin Roosevelt and immediately thereafter.
The Republicans have won five out of the last six presidential races. FDR won a fourth term, then Harry Truman added a win before Dwight Eisenhower brought the Republicans back for two terms.
How long will Republicans keep this strong hold on the White House?
Paul Maslin, a pollster whose clients are usually important Democratic officeholders or office seekers, paints a bleak picture of Democratic presidential politics. He told reporters the other morning that he saw the Democratic Party wandering in the wilderness for the next 10 or 15 years before it finds a formula for recapturing the presidency.
It's sometimes a particularly attractive ideology that keeps a party in power in Washington. FDR's liberalism and social programs responded to public needs and demands of that period.
What is it, then, that persuades voters to keep the Republicans at the helm today?
The appeal really isn't old-time conservatism. Ronald Reagan and George Bush have never tried to turn back the clock on the social programs put into place by the Democrats.
Their thrust is to reduce, or at least stop, the burgeoning of such programs. But they tend to accept and even approve of the more-compassionate government ushered in by an FDR who, as Mr. Reagan often reminds us, was his boyhood hero.
The actuality is that most people are benefiting by one or more of these social programs. Reagan and Mr. Bush know this.
When have you heard them talk about cutting back on social security benefits? Reagan once ventured in that direction and got burned politically - with an immediate, highly vocal negative public reaction.
But the Reagan-Bush approach is clear. They have a social agenda that would move the country in a different direction. This is vividly illustrated by their positions on abortion, prayer in the schools, the pledge of allegiance, and the death penalty.
So an effective, persuasive GOP approach to wooing the electorate does exist - but there is really no widely based ideological theme, nothing like FDR's New Deal. Indeed, when asked whether there would be a Bush slogan that would describe his approach to governing, the newly elected president indicated there might be one, but that he hadn't thought of it yet.
The fact is that the GOP presidential dominance of recent years doesn't go below the top, whereas Roosevelt's social reform reached down to every level of government.
I keenly remember the Roosevelt landslide of 1932 when Champaign County, Ill., a GOP bastion, went Democratic for the first time. There were only two county officeholders who withstood this sweep, and by only a handful of votes. The whole country, not just the presidency, had been caught up in the hope and philosophy of Roosevelt.
So can one really say there is a conservative tide flowing from an electorate that, while electing Republican presidents, provides such a heavy coloration of Democrats in Congress?
No, something new has been at work - something political analysts have noted only recently. Some say voters are becoming educated and sophisticated enough to consciously seek a check and balance. They vote in a president and then vote for state and local representatives who don't agree with that president.
So what is electing these GOP presidents if broad philosophical appeal is not drawing the multitudes to their side?
I think it is merely a matter of public trust.
On the No. 1 issue before the public - the United States' survival in a hostile world - the voters trust a Republican president more than a Democrat in dealing with Soviet leaders. Moreover, the voters have seen that this trust was merited in Reagan's effective missile-reducing negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev.
The public under Reagan also feels prouder of the US. Polls show this. A strong majority of voters hail the military buildup under Reagan, which, they believe, improved the country's standing in the eyes of the rest of the world, and also led to Soviet willingness to talk about mutual arms cuts.
We may forget that under President Nixon there was decided progress in foreign affairs. He made many people feel proud by opening the door to mainland China and negotiating d'etente with the Soviets.
Most voters assume that a Republican president will be more effective in dealing with the war-and-peace issue. Many, too, are knowledgable enough in political matters to know that Congress is more likely to ratify a treaty with the Soviets engineered by a GOP president than one brought about by a Democratic president.