INASMUCH as William F. Buckley has popularized the word oxymoron," which means the bringing together of incongruous or contradictory ideas like "studied carelessness " or "foolish wisdom," I wonder why he, or someone else, has not raised an oxymoronic query about the neoconservative movement now gaining so much attention in contemporary American politics. Its linguistic contradiction is also, to some extent, its Achilles' heel.

In all fairness to those identified with neoconservatism -- figures such as Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Pat Moynihan, Eugene Rostow, John Roche, Ben Wattenberg, Norman Podhoretz, Scoop Jackson, Rep. Jack Kemp and Prof. Arthur Laffer -- a majority don't like the label, realizing full well its inadequacies and contradictions. The oxymoronism draws critics -- on both sides. The right scoffs at the "neo" part, the left bogeymans the conservative element into a threatened new era of reaction.

But from yet another perspective, I believe a case can be made that in terms of political impact, there's less to nonconservatism than meets the eye. A major intellectual force, yes; a major political force, probably not.

The origins of latter-day neoconservatism unavoidably rest on how one defines it, but the chronology is clear enough: Overt, self-professed neoconservatism is a product of the last four to five years. William Safire's 1972 political dictionary skipped from neanderthal to nepotism without so much as a bow to the forces which Messrs. Kristol, Bell, Moynihan, et al., have since unleashed upon us. But between 1972 and 1974, something critical took place: Watergate.

Once Richard Nixon and operational political conservatism were so impugned, a whole band of "Nixiecrats -- useful shorthand for the distressed ex-liberal Democrats who had been rallying around Nixon's anti-Mcgovern banner -- found themselves in want of a new banner and rallying point. Neoconservatism has risen like a phoenix from those 1972-74 ashes, and with great success.

Liberal establishment publications notably unsympathetic to any form of activist conservatism can frequently be seen these days lauding neoconservatism as the "responsible right," propping it up and plugging it in fine style. An approximate parallel might be if the National Association of Manufacturers were allowed to choose which labor union should represent the workers at General Motors.

Still, in ideas as in clothing, fashion tells a lot about society. And this embrace of a mild rightward shift is important because it underscores the rapidly increasing community of interest between the established liberal progeny of the Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy-LBJ era, who find themselves now favoring the conservation of their own power and interests (and never mind any more experiments on behalf of the poor), and affluent conservatives of equally establishmentarian hue who will settle for a victory of conservative form in safeguarding liberal substance. Converging circumstances like these are a rich compost for the growth of neoconservatism's political garden, and so it has flourished.

For example, if one assumes, as many liberals do, that the country is shifting rightward, the name of the game then becomes to ensure the most acceptable outcome within those parameters. In that regard, neoconservatism must seem reassuring on a number of cultural/political grounds:

1. Disproportionate eastern, even New York City, origins.

2. Close identification with the intelligentsia and elite publications such as commentary and The Public Interest.

3. Strong antipopulism and lack of grass-roots political organization or interest.

4. Disproportionately Jewish antecedents and strong support for Israel.

5. Strong previous identification with the Democratic Party.

6. Support for the elitist-internationalist-institutionalist side of conservatism rather than the populist or nationalistic variety.

7. Long-standing insider involvement in Washington affairs.

However, if all of these help make neoconservatism acceptable and even fashionable in major media circles -- and they certainly do -- they simultaneously make neoconservatism a nonstarter in North Carolina or South Boston. And now that neoconservatism is attempting to become a political force, that's important.

Inasmuch as most media discussion of neoconservatism has come from either the atypically hostile left fringe or from a basically supportive centrist establishement, it seems to me that many of the weaknesses that could minimize neoconservative national political (as opposed to intellectual) impact have been skipped over. Perhaps a brief catalogue-cum amplification would be in order.

New York City Parochialism: A number of the central figures in neoconservatism -- Kristol, Moynihan, Bell -- not only grew up in New York City but went to the City College of New York (CCNY), a notable leftist breeding ground hitherto not especially known for rapport with that small part of the nation west of the Hudson River. A number of other neocon stalwarts -- John Roche, Ben Wattenberg -- are also New Yorkers.

Intellectualism: Neoconservatism is long on magazine editors and short on hod carriers; it is also very long on chiefs and very short on Indians.

Antipopulism: Neoconservatives like to speak favorably of the average American and to deplore the elitism of the "New Class," but neoconservatism itself is profoundly elitist, and tends to look down its urbane eastern nose at the populist politics -- single-issue cultivation, use of referenda, judicial recalls and constitutional convention petitions -- increasingly practiced by the New Right.

The Importance of Israel: Some New Left critics have even gone so far as to link the rise of neoconservatism to Jewish intellectual fear of Russia and concern for the future of Israel. This charge seems extreme, but neoconservatism's strong preoccupation with Israel does suggest a genesis and partial raison d'etre not deeply shared by the country as a whole.

Familiar Faces/Failure Participants: One of the most striking things about the neoconservatives is how many were participants in some of the most ill-advised, misconceived and misadministered policies of the last 15 years. Whether in blueprinting the "no-lose, no-win" war policy in Vietnam, or nurturing the wasteful and ineffective programs of the Great Society, neoconservatives played a stalwart role. Moynihan, for example, participated in the failures of four straight administrations without regard to party. That must be some kind of record.

The notion that these people represent a collective new face, or a set of bold new policies finely attuned to the times, is clearly untrue. A few of the newer faces among them -- Kemp, Laffer -- represent repackaged fiscal ideas that go back to Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge but the bulk of the neoconservatives are aging warhorses of the '50 and '60s. Far from being new brooms that can sweep clean, they are old brooms with more than a fair share of cobwebs.

The Refuge for Unhappy Liberals: A recent Washington Post piece on Kristol noted how neoconservatism was becoming popular as a refuge for disillusioned liberals -- a halfway house, as it were. Not a few of the leading neoconservatives are men whose 1979 editorials, books and speeches are disavowals (lately so labeled) of the unsuccessful policies that they endorsed or even helped shape in 1962 or 1969. Recrimination is understandably limited; and the new wisdom is often only verbiage deep.

Capitol Hill observers muse that Moynihan's conservative rhetoric almost always leads up to a liberal vote, and Kristol's pronouncements against the behavior and policies of the (liberal) "New Class" elite are matched only by his unwillingness to support or embrace populist conservative ideas aimed at actually clipping the social/institutional wings of that group. If you heed the old saw, "Watch what they do, not what they say," neoconservatism is a not particularly painful transition vehicle for disillusioned liberals who realize that a number of their ideas proved less than successful, but who shun any leadership or institutional upheaval based on that failure.

Does it add up to a politics about to sweep through the nation? I think not. The American electorate, if not the bipartisan establishment, is probably looking for something more broadly based and dynamic.

I do not offer this somewhat cynical perspective as a self-proclaimed true conservative sitting in judgment on heretics, incomplete converts or deviationists. Not at all. Arguably, neoconservatives trying to modify yet preserve the New Deal/Fair Deal/Great Society liberal framework may be serving a much more literally conservative function than the New Rightists who, under the label of true-blue conservatism, are trying to achieve a major upheaval in the structure of American politics and government. The trouble with fundamentally outdated terminology -- the nomenclature of conservatism and liberalism -- is that it becomes no less confusing (and perhaps a little more so) when you tack on the "neo" prefix.

Indeed, one of the more interesting things about neoconservatism, or "reformed elite liberalism," is it ripening convergence with "reformed elite conservatism" of the William F. Buckley/National Review school. The Buckleyites, who prefer a conservatism steeped in English manor houses and Hapsburg pretenders, have been moving toward a more establishmentarian centrism of late. Buckley himself has endorsed the Panama Canal treaties, urged the election of Allard Lowenstein to Congress, come out for making Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday and made clear in other ways his profound disagreement with the populist conservatives forces of the New Right.

At first blush, this convergence of ultraconservatives-turned-moderate consrvatives with ex-liberals-turned-neoconservatives ought to bespeak the creation of a powerful centrist political force. And that is the view in many quarters, where neoconservatism is being portrayed as the great gathering wave of the 1980s. Kristol's proteges have even begun describing him as "the godfather."

Meanwhile, an increasing number of observers have begun commenting that the difference between the fashionable-conservatives and the fashionable liberals is now much less than old sterotypes would suggest. Murray Kempton, once the 1950s epitome of haute-Stevensonian liberalism, recently crossed the aisle to write a column for National Review, enthusing to Buckley in his first essay that "yours is the only editorial mind and National Review's, curiously, the only temper with which I could conceive of myself as fitting."

The stalwarts of the New Right, from a quite different perspective, regard Buckley as only diminishingly different from his erstwhile opposite numbers at The New Republic or The New York Times. And libertarian Murray Rothbard put it as well as any when he observed recently that "left and right have been collapsing toward the center, that is, toward the locus of power. Interests of state have increasingly taken over, leading the 'responsible' elements within each ideological group to more and more resemble one another . . . Specifically, it has become almost impossible to distinguish 'responsible' National Review conservatism from right-wing social democracy or from neoconservatism . . . How much difference is there, after all, among William F. Buckley, Sidney Hook, Daniel Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol . . .?"

Not much, and the essential question, I submit, is whether this ecumenicalism is the gathering of a great new wave of American politics or the common wagon circling of a failed elite. Possibly it may be simultaneously a bit of each, but I would choose the common wagon circling of a failed elite.

By most yardsticks, be they subjective analysis or public opinion sampling, the people who have run this country for the last 15 years have failed enormously. America has lost its first war, U.S. global power is retreating in marked disarray, California mobilized an angry nation with Proposition 13, and 28 states have demanded a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. Pollster Daniel Yankelovich sees the possibility of some kind of populist political upheaval; George Gallup speculates that the 80s will be a decade of national tension and disorder. Confronted with such a threat, the elites are prone to bury their differences to achieve something of a common front against the great menance of double knits and dungarees.

It's hard to see how neoconservatism amounts to much more than that. For all that its chief protagonists have (belatedly) discovered and discoursed upon some erroneous dynamics of the liberal era, they have not come up with much of a positive framework for the postliberal era. If anything, the central thesis of neoconservatism seems to be "things are pretty good now; don't change much -- or change it too quickly." Gradualism is the order of the day.

By and large, neoconservatives would rather write articles for The Public Interest or Commentary articulating some learned policy nuance than organize at the grass roots to promote serious politics of the sort they theoretically endorse. Not a few conservative activists will say of the neoconservatives: "They talk a good game, but they don't do much of anything."

The principal exception comes in four areas: tax policy; strong defense advocacy/opposition to SALT; economic deregulation; and strong support for Israel. The posture on Israel will need no amplification for those familiar with the pages of Commentary or the speeches of Moynihan, and neither will neoconservatism's stalwart defense policy. But tax policy in some ways provides the most important (and discouraging) measurement of neoconservative political sagacity.

Sometime in late 1977 or early 1978, "Godfather" Kristol decided that the next president of the United States should be none other than Jack Kemp, coauthor of the now-famous Kemp-Roth 30 percent tax cut and former quarterback for the Buffalo Bills professional football team. Income tax reduction was seen as the key to a new politics.

In the wake of California's Proposition 13 tax revolt, both Kemp-Roth and Kemp himself were indeed very much in the news. However, as voters became familiar with the theory behind Kemp-Roth -- the idea that cutting federal taxes by 30 percent would really generate so much new business activity that overall revenues would actually increase -- they began to scoff, distrusting as "gimmickry" the claim that taxes could be slashed so much without also cutting spending. After November's votes were counted, some analysts speculated that misguided advocacy of Kemp-Roth cost the GOP 10 Houses seats that might have been gained by espousal of more popular issues and programs. Possible so. At any rate, electoral cunning is not the forte of the neoconservatives. In that respect, they call to mind Frederick the Great's observation that "if I wished to punish a province, I would have it ruled by philosophers."

All in all, then, and despite the recent hype that has surrounded neoconservatism, I have trouble seeing it becoming the major force is U.S. politics that its architects and admirers hope. The United States seems to be entering a period of upheaval and change, of populist reaction against establishment failure, and neoconservatism is too much a vehicle of standpattism, of support for the status quo, to guide and steer such a reaction.

Public opinion seems to be turning to initiatives, referenda, recalls, tax revolts, single-issue groups, constitutional convention demand and other populist devices to bypass the unresponsiveness of existing officeholders and institutions; neoconservative theorists have been speaking out in oppostion to all these. The public at large favors a lengthy list of amendments to the Consitution, be they to mandate balanced budgets, prohibit busing or require direct election of the president; neoconservatism says no. Support is growing for an "America, Inc." partnership of business and government to better manage and promote U.S. trade in the face of foreign competition and discrimination; neoconservatives are still caught up with contrary notions like deregulating U.S. airlines, heretofore the most successful in the world.

If there is a populist political upheaval taking shape, neoconservatism has little handle on it.

Of course, most neoconservatives tend to deplore and deny the populist hypothesis. However, sociologist David Riesman suggests that the trend of today's politics is populist rather than traditionally conservative because "it is not led by big business, the intelligentsia or the media as in the traditional swing to the right. Today, they are the villians."

My own view is much the same, and if we are correct, neoconservatism is hardly the wave of the future. Its defense of the institutional status quo, its intellectualism and its New York/Eastern parochialism do not lend themselves to either populist politicking or cultural empathy with Middle America. Nor does neoconservatism have charismatic leaders to match against the liberalism of Edward Kennedy or the swashbuckling, statist sunbelt conservatism of John Connally. Former quarterback Kemp is not quite in that league.

Some months ago, Arthur Schlesinger suggested, and was laughed at for saying so, that while U.S. politics was presently going through a passive/conservative period, by the early 1980s we would again be a nation in search of activism and programmatic innovation. I have a feeling that he is correct, althoug the activism may not bear much (if any) resemblance to the "liberalism" of the '60s and early '70s. And that, too, is another reason to doubt the long-term political clout of neoconservatism. Its principal policy remedies -- sweeping tax reductions in the Harding-Coolidge manner, deregulation of transportation industries -- involve negative rather than affirmative programming. There is no new American blueprint to rally a charisma-seeking nation.

The great contribution neoconservatism may make is intellectual, profiling and spotlighting the passing of the liberal era. But the political framework of the post-liberal era is going to have to come from somewhere else. Seven years ago, but for Watergate, Richard Nixon's "New Majority" might have provided a common vehicle for both a popular politics and a neoconservative philosophy. Certainly Kristol and Moynihan both hoped and thought as much.

Today's political currents are distinctly different. Although the movement of opinion still seems to be to the right, the ongoing disillusionment of the American electorate and the decomposition of political institutions may complicate the reassembling of a working national majority. Neoconservatism is probably not a credo well suited to turbulent times, and its future role and impact must probably await a measurement of that turbulence.