WASHINGTON — On the eve of fundamental policy decisions on taxes and U.S.-Soviet relations, Ronald Reagan's Administration finds itself fractured by increasingly bitter divisions between the Republican Party's rival camps: the ideological conservatives who would rather be right than win and the moderates who counsel partial victories through compromise.
Nothing has so dramatized the split as the double debacle involving Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork's rejection by the Senate and the subsequent, quickly aborted nomination of Douglas H. Ginsburg.
Administration hard-liners, accusing the moderates of failing to wage an all-out campaign for Bork, obtained Reagan's support for Ginsburg before his past could be thoroughly checked. Ginsburg's withdrawal from consideration Saturday after admitting he had used marijuana left the conservatives mortified--and the moderates, who had opposed Ginsburg's nomination in the first place, seething.
One source said that White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr.--the Administration's leading moderate--was so upset about Reagan's selection of Ginsburg that he briefly entertained the possibility of quitting. Baker was "mad as hell," said a friend at week's end, "but he's calmed down."
White House Communications Director Thomas C. Griscom, a Baker ally, said the chief of staff never thought about quitting and insisted: "It's less of a battle here than people outside tend to make it. Sen. Baker's ability to get stuff done is more than people think."
But Baker's departure would be no loss to conservative ideologues inside the government and out. Patrick J. Buchanan, Reagan's former communications director and an outspoken advocate of the hard-line approach, said he has felt a "general dissatisfaction" with the Administration's "disinclination to fight" ever since Baker became chief of staff early this year.
The White House staff, Buchanan said, has failed to push Congress hard enough not only on Bork but also on other issues, including aid for Nicaragua's rebels. Taxes and U.S.-Soviet relations, he said, will provide litmus tests of Baker's future performance.
He predicted a "firestorm" of protest if Reagan yields to pressure and approves a tax increase as part of the deficit-reduction package being negotiated by Administration and congressional leaders.
Look to Summit
Likewise, Buchanan said, conservatives will howl if the President compromises his Strategic Defense Initiative, the space-based anti-missile system commonly known as "Star Wars," during next month's summit with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Reagan does continue to talk like the leader conservatives thought they had helped elect. During a recent White House meeting, for example, the President reportedly told conservative Republican senators that on the great issues, "It's better to lose than to compromise your integrity."
But the balance among Administration officials seems to be tipping toward moderation. The pragmatists predominate in Baker's White House, where the conservative flame is still carried by Gary Bauer, Reagan's assistant for policy development; T. Kenneth Cribb Jr., his assistant for domestic affairs; Budget Director James C. Miller III, and the entire speech-writing staff under Anthony Dolan.
Outside the White House, moderates have recently replaced conservatives in a number of key posts: Vernon A. Walters for Jeane J. Kirkpatrick as U.N. ambassador; Frank C. Carlucci for John M. Poindexter as Reagan's national security adviser, and, just last week, the nomination of Carlucci to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.
Meese's Kindred Spirits
The leading conservative still in the Cabinet is Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, who championed Ginsburg's ill-fated nomination to the Supreme Court. He has kindred spirits in Education Secretary William J. Bennett and Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel.
The ranking Cabinet moderates are Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III.
The struggle for Reagan's heart and mind on tax and budget policy pits Treasury Secretary Baker against Budget Director Miller. Baker reportedly refused to travel overseas to an international finance ministers' meeting during the budget negotiations with Congress, lest Miller be left in charge.
The battle lines over "Star Wars" are not so clear in the absence of Weinberger, one of the Administration's leading proponents of SDI. "Weinberger's leaving has set off a genuine five-alarm warning" in the conservative camp, Buchanan said.
The conservatives' leading bugaboo in the Administration is Howard Baker, whom they regard as miscast as chief of staff. Although Baker sees compromise as necessary if Reagan is to get even partial victories from the Democratic Congress, the President's right-wing supporters equate compromise with weakness.