The best that can be said of Tuesday's election, speaking from a conservative view, is that it could have been worse. Once that cheery thought has been voiced, it is downhill all the way.

A dismal conviction is growing that Republicans, as a breed, have no great taste for the rough-and-tumble of politics. In the bellies of the GOP, fires rarely burn. Not more than a handful of Republican politicians in Washington ever exhibit a sense of hard-driving partisan zeal. They find that sort of thing embarrassing.What has gone wrong within the Grand Old Party? It now appears that Republicans will hold only 167 seats in the House, and maybe only 165. This would put party strength in the lower chamber at its lowest level since 1982. It is about where the party stood in 1938.

The picture in the Senate is no brighter. Republicans lost Rudy Boschwitz in Minnesota to a flaming liberal professor, Paul Wellstone. The party had a fine opportunity - or so it appeared - to knock off Claiborne Pell in Rhode Island, Paul Simon in Illinois, Carl Levin in Michigan, Tom Harkin in Iowa and Daniel Akaka in Hawaii. Republican candidates never even came close.

The trouble, one suspects, is that Republicans were not born to brass knuckles. When they try to bite and gouge, they do it poorly. George Bush cringed from the negative campaign his managers mounted in 1988. His heart was never in it. And look at Clayton Williams in Texas. He blew a 30-point lead by getting ugly with Ann Richards, and the lady gave him a lesson in manners. Williams began as a character and wound up a buffoon. Richards wound up as governor.

It may be that high political office, especially in Congress, is losing the old appeal. The rules have changed. As an institution, Congress takes a terrible drubbing from the press. The drubbing is richly deserved, but it hurts all the same. The job pays well and the fringe benefits are handsome, but being a member means constantly raising money to run for re-election. It's not much fun any more.

In some fashion, Republicans must groom more attractive candidates to run for the state legislatures. As a rule, service at the state level is not as tough and time-consuming as service on Capitol Hill. If the party could manage to gain and hold majorities in such capitals as Albany, Sacramento, Austin and Tallahassee, the future might not look so cloudy.

Tuesday's elections should provide a lesson in politics to those amateur analysts who anticipated a major upheaval. There never was the slightest possibility of throwing the bums out in wholesale fashion. Not more than 35 or 40 of the 435 seats in the House were seriously contested.

The advantages of incumbency are overwhelming. With few exceptions, challengers find it painfully difficult to raise money - and money is the mother's milk of politics. Now and then the underfinanced campaign of an unknown candidate will surprise an incumbent. But these are aberrations. Of 32 senators who sought re-election, 31 won, and 22 of them won by more than 10 points.

One rule of politics hasn't changed: You can't beat somebody with nobody. If Republicans want to win Senate seats in Tennessee, Delaware, Alabama and Oklahoma, where they would stand a fighting chance, they will have to put up candidates with greater stature. And if they are to have a realistic hope of winning control of the House, they must develop a better farm system. This will be some time after 2000.

A preliminary guess is that barely one-third of the eligible voters went to the polls on Tuesday. If an indifferent public gets an indifferent Congress, the people and their representatives will deserve each other.