GUESS who is in big political trouble these days? Helmut Kohl, chancellor of West Germany. To Americans, such a turn of events must come as a complete surprise. After all, did not this amiable man only recently earn the respect of his countryfellows by steadfastly walking through the Bitburg controversy, valiantly supported by his steadfast friend, Ronald Reagan?
Well, for all the ingenious rationalization, Bitburg was but a Pyrrhic victory. While the majority of Germans did rally behind him, they abhorred the confusion and disorientation surrounding the whole planning of President Reagan's visit.
But an important regional election was to be held a few days after that trip, and one could sense that the problems of the real world, with unemployment heading the list, already were sweeping aside the often contrived images of the Bonn summit and the Reagan visit, on which the government had hoped to capitalize at the polls.
Mr. Kohl's party lost by a wide margin in Germany's industrial heartland, the Ruhr region. It was a larger loss than an incumbent government usually takes in midterm elections.
The problem Mr. Kohl has to deal with goes to the heart of contemporary German society: How much will it embrace change, and at what pace?
The chancellor, so far, has stuck to a cautious line of departure from the previous government, rejecting insinuations that he move more boldly.
In words, he pursues the rhetoric of d'etente; however, in deeds he follows the policy of economic and social circumspection.
Take Mr. Kohl's tax reduction program, for example. Afraid to follow the American experience of drastic revenue reduction and massive new debt, he has offered a two-stage tax plan. The first is to commence next year, the second in 1988 -- more than a year after the end of his first term.
The idea is to avoid unnecessary deficits and overstimulation of the economy lest that ravenous beast, inflation, is brought back.
Can anyone imagine Mr. Reagan or Britain's prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, waiting to enact pet political ideas until three years after taking office, and then postponing full implementation into an uncertain second term?
Clearly, ``conservative'' in Germany has a very literal meaning. Germans, then, have only themselves to blame if their economy continues to perform in a laggard fashion, with unemployment at a high level.
Poor Mr. Kohl. The whole ``star wars'' debate, so fraught with unanswered questions, already had made him look adrift.
Then there are problems with other German politicians. Ex-Chancellor Willy Brandt steals the limelight from him in Moscow, while former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt treats the public to insights into his judgment.
Bitburg didn't help, and unemployment, the Gorgon Medusa of politics, will not yield to soft administrations. Will someone volunteer to advise Mr. Kohl and his party as to how they might prevent their political fortunes from going into decline?
Thomas Kielinger is the capital bureau chief of Die Welt, the West German national daily, in Bonn.