GEORGE BUSH won the presidency decisively; Michael Dukakis lost respectably. The Republican Party gained a four-year extension Tuesday for the Reagan-Bush initiatives on arms control, the economy, foreign policy; the Democrats added to their majorities in the House and Senate, which will compel the Bush administration toward moderation and compromise. Mr. Bush worked many years for his President-elect status. He made friendships among the powerful, wrote personal notes to secretaries and others who might not have expected them, sat in on Henry Kissinger's talks with Chou En-lai, stood as second fiddle beside a superior political communicator, Ronald Reagan, for eight years. His negative campaign disappointed many of his supporters, and it contradicted the gentility in personal relations for which he was known. But Bush had served a long apprenticeship; he had paid his dues.
Mr. Dukakis, by contrast, tried to put together a national campaign basically in five months. He had to learn, on the run and at great cost, that a presidential candidate must answer an attack instantly and fully. Unlike a statewide race, a national campaign demands the discipline and resources of a major corporation: It's a bigger league, for which the Bush team was better prepared.
Bush will have to do something about the Q-word - or Dan Quayle. Mr. Quayle was kept largely out of sight at the campaign's close; he was permitted no victory speech. A major part of a White House staff's responsibility is to prepare a vice-president to take over in an emergency. Mr. Quayle did not ``win'' the vice-presidency in his own right, as had Bush by finishing second to Mr. Reagan in 1980. He will take a lot of grooming.
More important than the veep in the Bush administration, in terms of policy, will be his Cabinet. Bush named James Baker III his secretary of state - a superb choice. And Nicholas Brady, Dick Thornburgh, Lamar Alexander, Richard Darman, are either already in the Reagan administration or standing by to serve. The absence of women's names in this list points up a gap in the candidate's political networking that should be closed - Labor Secretary Ann McLaughlin, if she stays on, can't be expected to do it all herself.
The Democrats have reason to think 1988 might have been a Democratic year for the White House. As it was, Dukakis lost to Bush by some 6.7 million votes. This was better than Jimmy Carter's 8.4 million-vote gap against Reagan in 1980, and Walter Mondale's 16.9 million vote shortfall in 1984. Dukakis's 112 electoral votes was more than double Carter's tally - but still well short of the 150 or so electoral votes that would have made the Massachusetts governor appear a credible candidate for 1992.
Democrats can still do well in the South, where modern presidential success appears anchored. Democrat Charles Robb's victory in the Virginia Senate race shows that the Republicans do not have a ``lock'' there. Even with Texan Lloyd Bentsen's help on the ticket, Dukakis could not sell himself to that region. Perhaps another Democrat can.
Overall, George Bush did marginally better than his party in Tuesday's elections; Mike Dukakis did worse than his. No major issues were decided except that continuity - Republican control in the White House, Democratic control in Congress and in governors' mansions - was preferred to change.