What conclusions can be drawn from George Bush's impressive triumph now that he has been elected President in a landslide victory?

While politicians are seldom bashful about claiming mandates at the slightest excuse, it's hard to draw many broad conclusions when only about half of the eligible voters went to the polls Tuesday, when the winner is backed by only about 26 percent of them, when surveys repeatedly showed that support for both Bush and Michael Dukakis was soft, and many Americans would have preferred some other choices.Even so, history was made Tuesday when Bush became the first vice president since Martin Van Buren in 1836 to win the presidency. At the same time, it was the first time in 40 years that one party has won three consecutive presidential elections.

But Republicans down the ticket did not always share Bush's success. As a result, the new president faces a Congress with a different agenda than his, a Congress hostile to Bush because of the kind of campaign he ran.

By way of drawing conclusions from all this, at least this much seems clear:

Certainly Americans demonstrated their continuing preference for divided government, with the White House in the hands of the Republicans and Congress firmly in control of the Democrats - a situation that James Kilpatrick discusses in his column on this page. Such ticket-splitting enables voters to rise above partisan labels and vote for the individual rather than the party. But it can also produce deadlock and inaction in government. Moreover, divided government makes it harder to hold elected officials responsible for what they accomplish or don't accomplish.

Certainly the outcome points to the difficulty of forming a conservative coalition between Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats with much clout in Congress. Consequently, the outcome also indicates the likelihood of a short "honeymoon" between George Bush and Congress.

Certainly Bush's victory re-emphasizes the truism that voters make up their minds about presidential tickets on the basis of who's at the head of the ticket. Running mates are seldom a major factor, and clearly were not in the 1988 campaign.

Certainly, too, the Bush victory gives credence to the claim that presidential elections are largely determined on the basis of how well or badly things are going for the incumbent party. With a reasonably good economy, progress on arms control, no juicy scandal, and no social unrest, Americans tend to prefer a familiar if not entirely inspiring leader over a lesser-known and lesser-tested challenger.

So it was again Tuesday. About the only suspense was over the size of George Bush's victory. With it, Americans have opted for continuity and ratified rather than reversed eight years of Republican leadership in the White House.

Now that he finally has the prize he so long pursued, the question becomes what will Bush do with it. The question would be easier to answer if the campaign had not been so short on substance. Even Bush himself recently acknowledged he could not be entirely sure of what he will do as President until after he enters the Oval Office.

At least one big challenge is unmistakably clear: Though inflation and interest rates are down while employment is up, the federal deficit and the national debt remain big chinks in America's armor. And it won't be easy for Bush to make good on his promise to eliminate the deficit without hiking taxes.

In any event, until these problems are overcome, there will be sharp limits to how strong and generous the U.S. can be at home and abroad. If the White House and Congress can't rise above partisanship and wring the red ink out of the federal budget, both will have betrayed the trust the voters placed in them Tuesday.