When one of Washington's most formidable political figures goes after a junior White House aide, when their struggle is over ideas -- not just office space or staffing -- and when top members of Congress defend not the big guy but the junior aide, you know something important is going on.

That's the story of Washington's newest imbroglio, a turf battle of the most elevated sort. It's about defining the zeitgeist of the Bush years.

On the one side: Richard Darman, President Bush's budget director, one of this city's premier inside operators, someone who bids regularly for the title of "the smartest guy in town." He has tried several times to play the role of administration intellectual and give some philosophical heft to Bush's seemingly random collection of domestic initiatives.

On the other side: James P. Pinkerton, 32, the gangly 6-foot-9 deputy assistant to the president for policy planning, an offbeat idea-monger who is bidding for his place in history with something he calls "the New Paradigm," a freemarket, anti-bureaucratic approach to public policy that he would like to see displace the more artfully named "New Deal." In plain English, it's about such things as a government-funded voucher system to let poor children go to private schools, tenant ownership of public housing projects, tax incentives instead of regulation to curb pollution.

A lot is at stake here. At the personal level, it's a fight over who will be in charge of "the vision thing" for an administration that's been woefully short on themes and dreams, on organizing principles and large purposes. In a paradigmless administration, the New Paradigm could be king, which would make Pinkerton, not Darman, the court philosopher of the Bush Era.

On a broader level, the New Paradigm is an effort to restore coherence to an increasingly disorganized and fractious conservatism. With communism gone and with Bush caving on taxes, conservatism desperately needs something new -- or at least something that appears New.

The Darman-Pinkerton tussle is full of delightful contrasts. Where Darman is clearly a man of the 1950s and early 1960s, Pinkerton comes out of the baby boom ethos of the 1970s. Darman's roots are in the staid but steady Republican moderation of Elliot Richardson. Pinkerton's are in the free-wheeling libertarian movement, which wanted to abolish as much government as possible. Darman is more East Coast and Harvard. Pinkerton went to Stanford and is, culturally speaking, a Californian.

Darman is forceful, formal and careful. Pinkerton is somewhat shy and informal and loves to toss around ideas before they're fully baked. Darman loves his proper, Establishment pedigree. Pinkerton is happy to tell you that the first real money he ever made was as a contestant on a TV game show.

Darman's main Bush guru is Secretary of State James A. Baker III, whom Darman helped mightily by mastering the details of White House bureaucratic politics. Pinkerton's is Lee Atwater, the general chairman of the Republican Party whom Pinkerton served as a researcher. Among Pinkerton's most significant research discoveries was Willie Horton, the black convicted murderer Michael Dukakis wishes he hadn't furloughed from prison and who, for liberals, was a symbol of Bush's willingness to traffic in white racial resentments.

The first public shot in the Darman-Pinkerton confrontation was fired on Nov. 16, when Darman gave a speech to the Council for Excellence in Government in which he made fun of the New Paradigm, calling the phrase "a bit too pretentious for a would-be populist movement." He said the ideas were old hat, had been tried in the '60s and didn't work.

People, he said, might "simply dismiss it by picking up the refrain, 'Hey, brother, can you paradigm?' "

Darman never mentioned Pinkerton by name, but since the young aide has been selling the New Paradigm in meetings around town and in speeches around the country with the fervor of a young evangelist, everyone in the know knew whom Darman was ridiculing.

For the record, John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, will tell you that the Darman-Pinkerton battle has been overblown, and that in any event, nothing could be better for the administration than a good intellectual dust-up. "I think it's been a very healthy thing here," Sununu says.

Pinkerton and Darman are trying to keep things civil. Darman declined to be interviewed for this article. Pinkerton said he was happy to speak on any subject except Richard Darman. Although he doesn't say so, Pinkerton is clearly grateful to Darman for lifting his profile. Pinkerton may keep a picture of that martyr to principle, St. Thomas More, on his office wall in the Old Executive Office Building, but he is enough of a realist to want to avoid martyrdom himself.

As for that ungainly word "paradigm," Pinkerton accepts attacks on it with good grace. "My theory on the word paradigm is that it's like an old dog," he says. "It drools on you, it's ugly, but you remember it."

Some heretical Democrats have found affection for Pinkerton's old dog too.

One of Pinkerton's best friends in town is Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank, and a former official in the Democratic presidential campaigns of Walter Mondale and Bruce Babbitt. Together, Pinkerton and Kamarck have created the New Paradigm Society, which meets more or less monthly to discuss new ideas and to hear from writers like Shelby Steele, the black essayist who preaches against black separatism, and David Osborne, the public policy writer.

What unites this bipartisan group, says Kamarck, is the conviction that both Republicans and Democrats need to "reinvent government," in Osborne's phrase, and find new, nonbureaucratic ways to deliver services to the poor and the middle class. They also agree that government policies need to reflect certain basic values, such as the importance of work, self-improvement and family life.

But if it is to be more than just a cover for conservative efforts to eviscerate government, she says, the New Paradigm will require a lot more old-fashioned, Democratic spending.

"I agree with Jim on a lot, but not on his exotic aversion to taxes," she says. Kamarck says that as a Democrat (though not as Pinkerton's friend), she would love nothing better than to have Darman bury Pinkerton's program. "Then we Democrats can use these ideas," she says.

Pinkerton came by his bookishness honestly: He was born in the heart of what George Bush likes to call "the Harvard Boutique," in Harvard graduate student housing in Cambridge, Mass. His parents were graduate students -- his mother, Janet, in English, his father, James N., in physics.

Pinkerton got a full taste of life in the boutique. "My first political memory is of a pro-Viet Cong rally in Harvard Yard," Pinkerton said. "Make it clear I didn't burn anything. I was 5 or 6."

His father died when he was 3 years old, and he and his mother moved around the academic circuit after she received her PhD. She married again -- a fellow English professor, Randolph H. Hudson -- when Pinkerton was 10. It was a liberal household; Pinkerton remembers both of them voting for George McGovern in 1972.

Pinkerton inherited their dissenting streak, but not their politics. At Stanford University, where he studied political science, he was drawn to the anti-statist philosophy of libertarianism. Libertarians are essentially pro-choice on everything: They are against an interventionist foreign policy and against virtually all state involvement with the economy and they despise any government rules about private behavior. (Pinkerton describes himself as firmly "pro-choice" on abortion.) Pinkerton's first vote was for the Libertarian Party. He took a quarter off from Stanford in 1978 to earn some money in real estate, and hit the jackpot in a minor way on a game show called "Knockout." He won $5,000, he recalls, "plus a stove, a pizza maker, paperback novels and bathtub toys."

He went back to Stanford "to study trivia books" with an eye to making it on the more lucrative circuit of the bigger game shows. "My goal was a show called 'Tic-Tac-Dough,' " he recalls. "but I didn't get on, which was very traumatizing."

He eventually was drawn into the 1980 Reagan campaign by a libertarian friend, Doug Bandow, now a syndicated columnist. Bandow and Pinkerton became part of the libertarian circle around Martin Anderson, Reagan's domestic policy adviser. Pinkerton liked the game and was discovered by Atwater, who became deputy political director at the White House in 1982. Pinkerton went to work for him in a match that was to be especially damaging to Michael Dukakis.

During the 1988 campaign, Pinkerton was put in charge of opposition research. At a conference at the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School after the 1988 election, Atwater -- to whom Pinkerton remains close -- amusingly recalled how "issues" like Willie Horton, the pledge of allegiance and Dukakis's standing as a "card-carrying member of the ACLU" were discovered by Jim Pinkerton.

Atwater recalled that in April 1988, after Bush had secured the Republican nomination, he was deeply worried that the Dukakis forces would try to "create an issueless campaign and use incompetence and all that stuff."

"So I brought Pinkerton in the first week in April and said, 'Look, I want you to get the nerd patrol.' We had 35 excellent nerds in the research division. And I told Pinkerton, 'We need five or six issues and we need them by the middle of May, because it's going to hit the fan by mid-May.' ... Actually, I gave him a three-by-five card and I said, 'You come back with this three-by-five card -- but you can use both sides -- and bring me the issues we need in this campaign.' "

Pinkerton, not surprisingly, now tries to have it both ways on Willie Horton. On the one hand, he agrees with his old friend Atwater that crime was a legitimate issue and that furloughing convicted murderers was a stupid thing to do. On the other hand, he tries to convey that he understands why others, notably including blacks, found the campaign's use of Horton offensive.

Over dinner at a restaurant in Adams-Morgan, he had this to say about Willie Horton:

"Six or seven blocks from where we're sitting, a black woman named Clarine Collier-Wilson, a black mother of two, was killed on the street in front of her children by a robber. She was doing everything right. She was working, she was raising her kids. I think she emigrated from Haiti and she came here to live the American Dream. She was killed in a random street crime.

"I think that the basic ability of society to preserve safety and freedom from fear is a legitimate political issue. If it turns out that Clarine Collier-Wilson's killer is on furlough from some prison somewhere, that would be an issue too. Political leadership ought to be accountable for the safety of our cities. That was our message in 1988."

Having made this defense, Pinkerton offers a qualified apology for how the Bush campaign used Willie Horton in 1988: "We failed to keep the issue on the larger question of public safety and let it slip into a diabolized personality. I would say: I regret that."

A New Way of Thinking

For Pinkerton, the collapse of communism is Exhibit A in the case for the New Paradigm. Here, he argued in a speech before the libertarian-inclined Reason Foundation last April, was further evidence against the idea that "wise bureaucrats in league with university professors and politicians can somehow administer supply and demand, prosperity and equity, from an office building far away."

All this may seem like relatively safe conservative rhetoric. But Pinkerton is trying to argue that something more fundamental is going on in the world -- that the communications revolution, the mobility of money, the rise of computers are conspiring against those who would administer the world through centralized bureaucracies. Instead of fighting that trend, government policy makers should take advantage of the new liberation of human potential.

That's where that ugly word paradigm comes in. Pinkerton draws it from a book in the history of science that was popular on college campuses in the 1960s and 1970s, Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions."

Kuhn essentially argued that scientists, whose task is to solve new problems, operate within a particular set of assumptions or "paradigms."

When scientists come to realize that the "old paradigms" -- for example, the idea that the sun revolves around the Earth -- are useless, they are forced to new insights. They develop "new paradigms," and science is allowed to move forward again.

In social policy, Pinkerton's central message that the old paradigm of bureaucratic organization, helpful in its day, is no longer relevant. Thus, his new paradigm of decentralization.

The people who have suffered most from the failure of the "old paradigm" bureaucratic programs are the urban poor, Pinkerton says.

His preoccupation with the problems of the very poor is refreshing in an era when such concerns aren't fashionable. But there is a curious sense of wonder in this conservative's discovery of the inner-city poor.

When he was trying to come up with ideas for putting inner-city kids to work in the military, he went to an Army recruiting office on Florida Avenue in Northeast Washington.

It was there that he realized the Army rejects about two of every three applicants because they cannot pass a basic standardized test. "I thought about how fragile my ego was at that age. And I thought about the signal the Army was sending: Look kids, you are so useless you can't even get into the Army."

That's when he thought of starting a tree-planting corps for unskilled, uneducated black youths.

He recounts a conversation he had on the subject with a black military officer.

"When I said trees, he lit up. He said there were woods behind a project where he lived and that he would go there when his brothers and sisters got down on him. He said he would go there to get his head together, though he didn't use those exact words. He said that you can even get buck naked in the woods. And I thought, this was an inarticulate Walt Whitman."

Just the Same Old Ideas? If there is a strong point in Darman's case, it is his contention that Pinkerton is putting sophisticated clothing on what really are rather old conservative ideas. Consider the following quotation, which is entirely in keeping with the New Paradigm:

"Black Americans, no more than white Americans -- they do not want more government programs which perpetuate dependency. They don't want to be a colony in a nation. They want the pride, and the self-respect, and the dignity that can only come if they have an equal chance to own their own homes, to own their own businesses, to be managers and executives as well as workers, to have a piece of the action in the exciting ventures of private enterprise."

Those words were spoken by Richard M. Nixon when he accepted the Republican presidential nomination on Aug. 8, 1968.

The other basic dilemma raised by the New Paradigm is: How much will it all cost? Conservatives like Pinkerton insist that "there's plenty of money in the system now" to finance his proposals. Parents, he says, would be better off taking the amount spent per pupil in the inefficient public school system and spending it themselves in the schools of their choice.

Liberals like Kamarck aren't so sure. She argues that since the basic problem poor people face is that they don't have enough money, real voucher programs will require an infusion of substantial amounts of new money, the sort of things conservatives criticize as "the redistribution of income."

The issue of taxing-and-spending turns out to be central to the Darman-Pinkerton battle. As seen by conservatives, the conflict is a continuation of last October's budget war, by other means.

Conservatives in Congress and at junior levels of the administration are still furious about Bush's about-face on taxes and they blame the shift on Darman, who has become the Darth Vader of the right. Darman's criticism of Pinkerton, administration aides say, was in part his revenge for the press leaks against him during the budget fight that seemed to emanate from the executive quarters inhabited by Pinkerton and his allies.

But once Darman went public with his attack, conservatives mobilized against him, and House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich, a hero to the young conservatives in the White House, called on Darman to recant or quit.

If there is a danger to Pinkerton, it is that he and his paradigm could get mauled in the crossfire between Darman on the one side and House Republicans and the conservative movement on the other. Pinkerton himself has two firm loyalties that could come into conflict: a strong feeling for Bush, to whom he has stayed faithful through all the vagaries of the budget battle; and an intellectual conviction that Gingrich and the conservatives are right about the path Bush must pursue if he is to be successful.

Since Bush keeps giving speeches embracing aspects of the New Paradigm, since Pinkerton has important allies inside the administration, like Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp, and since Sununu speaks admiringly of Pinkerton, he seems to be walking the line fine so far.

But Sununu's praise carries with it the suggestion that the eclectic young aide needs to accept that he is still a young aide whose ideas might just be deemed, well, impractical by his elders.

Sununu said he admired Pinkerton for "knowing that his job is to lay out a whole list of ideas" knowing that many of them will be rejected "and not mind he's not batting 1.000." In an administration thought to be short on imagination, imaginative thinkers like Pinkerton may have to learn to accept the limits of their role -- even if that is clearly Old Paradigm thinking.

Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.