BOSTON -- Did you feel anything different this year? Did the new numbers, 1988, flow out of your pen more easily than usual? No crossed out 87s on your checks? No Wite-out on your letterheads?

January is barely in single digits, the year is still in its swaddling clothes, but it seems as if it's been 1988 for months. Chalk it up to the endless campaign if you will: the 1988 campaign, which began in 1987 and slid over year's end without missing an arithmetic step.

It's left me with the feeling that we didn't really get a new year this time. We got a used year, a hand-me-down year, a leftover year, a mop-up year. Even the stories that slid along with me over this annual dividing line offer fewer hints of a fresh start than of a last chance.

One of my favorites is the tale of the $149 million jet, the highest-tech plane designed to be an impregnable presidential command post in case of nuclear war. On Dec. 24, it was forced to land because some migrating snow geese were sucked into the engines.

Another is the memory of the floating garbage heap, the scow without a country, that carried the refuse of Long Island from one port to another looking for a dump.

And a third is is the Dubious Achievement Award won by Donald Hodel, secretary of the interior, for his private-sector initiative to combat trouble in the ozone. His solution is ''personal protection'' against ultraviolet radiation: hats, sunglasses, sunscreen ointments, the works.

These three form a trilogy of confrontations with reality. In every case reality lost. Were they the harbingers of a used 1988?

In this quiet transition time, it isn't just 40-year-old American women who are bumping up against the biological clock. We all are. Our high-tech hardware can't coexist with migrating geese. In our passion to waste, we no longer have an away to throw things. And when we blow a hole in the ozone, all we can manage to prescribe is suntan lotion.

These are not the only examples of the bad old days that we carry with us into this not-so-new year. There are others, far more familial.

There is financial proof of our difficulty in living within economic limits: a $148 billion budget deficit that looms over the future like last month's Christmas bills. There is foreign-policy proof of our difficulty in living within political limits: the bills that come from our belief that America must be everywhere, making its power and presence felt.

We are having trouble just thinking about a world in which we're no longer No. 1. We're having trouble learning to live within this world, both natural and political, rather than ruling it.

As for the campaigns that originally blurred the line of passage from one year to the next? In politics, 1984 was morning in America. Now, 1988, we are told, is the morning after.

Campaigns are always about the future. This time, polls suggest that the voters are worried and willing to deal with problems. Candidates announce regularly that they have the ''new ideas'' for the ''hard choices'' we must face.

But the two don't seem to connect. It is as if there is some gap in language or hearing.

I am not at all sure how receptive people really would be to the politics of national restraint and diminished expectations. If we were uncomfortable with Jimmy Carter's message of malaise, how likely are we to rally around realism?

Nor do I believe that a candidate can run on the prospect of keeping America tied for first place. It's hard to raise goose bumps with a promise that we'll only be competitive, when people want to cheer winning.

The one new trick would be for a candidate to fuse a message of American optimism and grit. Optimism that doesn't sound like a fairy tale and grit that doesn't sound like drudgery. But for the moment, all we hear are the sounds of a very old new year.