People are voting for leadership and achievement.

Politicians are having trouble making sense of Tuesday's elections. Democrats are grinning because their man was elected governor of Virginia, and because a black was elected lieutenant governor and a woman attorney general in this most conservative of southern states. Republicans are bragging because their governor of New Jersey was reelected with 71 percent, and they won control of the Assembly as well.

Does the Democratic victory in Virginia mean that the Republican rement in the South has been halted and reversed? Does the Republican victory in New Jersey mean the Democrats are through in the big industrial states?

The answers are no and no.

The cetral fact in both elections -- the beginning proposition for both parties' strategists -- was that both states had incumbent governors, one Democrat and one Republican, with positive job ratings of 75 percent or better. Given that, it's not surprising that Republican Thomas Kean won by such a huge margin against as competent and attractive a Democrat as Peter Shapiro. Chuck Robb would surely have beaten even as competent and attractive a Republican as Wyatt Durrette with something like 70 percent of the vote had he been eligible to run for a second term.

Voters in Virginia, like those in New Jersey, were not voting on the old left- right, liberal-conservative, spend more- spend less issues. They were deciding whether to maintain in office the kind of leadership the incumbent provided. So Kean won easily, and Gerald Baliles, with the advantages of a steadier campaign as well as Robb's endorsement, beat Durrette decisively.

All this may not sound remarkable. But in the 1970s and the early 1980s no governor in the country, with a few exceptions in the smallest states, had the kind of job rating Robb and Kean brought into this election. Now they are common: governors from Massachusetts to Florida, Tennessee to Arizona, are up in 70-plus territory.

These job ratings are built in part on genuine achievements. But they also reflect an important change in the public mood. There is a sense in most parts of the country that problems are being solved, that communities are surging ahead economically, and there is great pride in these achievements.

It is no accident that both Baliles and Durrette ran ads talking about Virginia's being No. 1 and leading the nation again, as it did two centuries ago.

So you can hear in these 1985 elections clear echoes of 1984, when Ronald Reagan carried 49 states and more incumbents were returned to Congress than ever before in American history. In 1984 America switched from being a nation fearful that it had gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track to one that was convinced it was going in the right direction. In 1985 so did states and even central cities, from New York to Cleveland to Los Angeles, which easily reelected incumbent mayors.

All this doesn't mean that American voters everywhere are pollyanna-ishly positive. But it does suggest that there is now in motion an underlying positive current of public opinion, a disposition to perceive and appreciate the goods news about government and politicians, a bias toward reelecting incumbents and those who can suggest persuasively that they will follow their example.

This is a sea change in American politics, a change with more implications for the way Americans work and live than the regional realignments and psephological portents that the parties' apologists are claiming to see in Tuesday's results.