Off-year elections seldom produce clear national messages or governing mandates, and this one was no different. But Tuesday's returns do offer fascinating clues to the future.

This election signaled the end to the '80s era of the politics of pleasure and the status quo. Whatever else the voters were saying in this first election of the '90s, they clearly signified a desire for change.

Yes, congressional incumbents were reelected overwhelmingly, but none can rest easily because of this week's outcome. All have good reason to be more insecure, not less. None can ignore the prospect that each now may face threatening challengers.

In state houses and city halls, politicians closest to the voters experienced unusual turbulence. Many were turned out, some dramatically. The perfect example was in Minnesota where the Democratic governor, Rudy Perpich, was swept from office although his principal opponent was forced to withdraw from the race only days before the election because of admitted involvement in a widely publicized sex scandal. A state auditor placed on the ballot by Republicans in the closing days of the campaign became governor-elect.

Congressional incumbents facing challengers, a distinct minority, found their winning margins cut substantially. In some cases, notably the hairbreadth victories of such nationally prominent politicians as Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the close margins were shocking. And in those races, as in other close ones, the challengers were woefully underfinanced and received little or no support from their respective national party organizations.

The lesson was clear: In the future, take no race for granted. Also, as the victory of Lawton Chiles in the Florida gubernatorial contest showed, candidates who are vastly outspent and don't accept money from political action committees still can win -- especially if they make the issue of PAC money central parts of their campaigns, as did Chiles.

This election also strongly suggested that the years leading to the 1992 presidential election will be rough politically. If you think the last few months of political brawling over the federal budget were dismaying, the forthcoming 102nd Congress promises to be even more fractious.

The reason is obvious. While this election figuratively cut the moorings from the politics of the '80s, it gave no discernible sign of where the ship of state is sailing, or drifting. The only certainty is that America is adrift and, to maintain the metaphor, heading into rough waters.

Brutal as the last congressional session was, the next one almost certainly will be worse. Economic problems were not resolved, merely postponed, and the choices over reducing debt, combating recession and raising scarce funds for domestic needs inevitably will be more difficult. That's to say nothing of additional vast sums for war implied in President Bush's new "no ceiling" Persian Gulf buildup announced yesterday.

The battle for funds will take place amid newly charged political circumstances that are the direct result of this election. George Bush has been weakened, and while it's far too early to know for certain, it's not unlikely that he will face a Republican challenger in two years.

At the same time, a bruising internal battle looms among Republicans over their party's control, direction and ideological heart. This election, as Washington Post colleague David S. Broder astutely commented, marks the beginning of "a brand-new dynamic inside the GOP."

There has been a rebirth of, if not perhaps Theodore Roosevelt-style Republican progressives, at least recently vanished Republican moderates. They're virtually certain to tangle with an already inflamed conservative core that sees its power waning and hopes of forging a new majority diminishing. Not since Sen. Barry Goldwater's militant conservative faction captured the GOP in 1964, preparing the way for the Reagan conservative era that dominated the country, have Republicans been in such flux.

Democrats, conversely, have been strengthened by the election. They have cracked the Sun Belt and are in the best position to reclaim the White House since Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976. It's not visionary for them to entertain a glimmer of victory behind, say, another Southern candidate such as Sen. Sam Nunn (Ga.).

Yet, they too emerge from this election without a clear unifying theme and facing unresolved questions about who will lead them, and where. The nation is listing toward a shore still dimly seen.