A backstairs revolt by junior presidential aides against Budget director Richard Darman's iron hold on domestic policy has been joined by Secretary of Housing Jack Kemp, elevating the dispute over the course George Bush will take during the rest of his term.

Rancorous contention that had been contained inside the White House was surfaced by Darman himself Nov. 16 with a speech ridiculing the quest by mid-level Bush staffers for a new, reformist program by President Bush for the next two years. "Darman really puts the president's State of the Union {address} in a bind," Kemp told us.

For one Cabinet member to publicly confront another is unusual -- and without precedent in this administration. It is hard to see how Bush can ignore it. He faces more than a choice between two strong-minded men, neither of whom he has ever been particularly close to. He must decide between Darman on one side and the reform wing of the party, including longtime Bush loyalists, on the other.

The day Darman tossed his grenade, Kemp had breakfasted with anti-Darman White House aides (self-designated, ironically, "the perestroika group"). They discussed plans for empowerment of the poor through the market system. That agenda has been ridiculed by Darman, privately at senior staff meetings and publicly in his Nov. 16 speech, and unfairly compared to leftist "power to the people" anti-poverty nostrums in the '60s.

Just about everybody at the White House concerned with policy favors empowerment initiatives, with only Darman opposed. There is a similar lineup on whether to try to reverse the political debacle of the budget deal by devising a new economic growth package built around capital gains tax cuts. It has been assumed that Darman, though badly outnumbered, will win out on all issues.

That Darman is preparing his own initiatives for the State of the Union while the president travels abroad leaves the White House rebels in a state of despair. They believe Darman's budget deal was a mistake for Bush for reasons of both politics and policy, and many of these Bush aides now look to Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp to show the Republican way.

Darman's self-confidence was reflected in his Nov. 16 performance, when he followed his pattern of using meticulously prepared speeches to signal policy. For those astute enough to understand, his 1989 address decrying "now-nowism" (preoccupation with the present) foretold a surrender on taxes. A savant was not needed to understand his latest jeremiad against "neo-neoism" that belittled policy fads and even put down Ronald Reagan's favorite Tom Paine quote extolling "the power to begin the world again."

Darman targeted White House aide James P. Pinkerton, one of the "perestroika group," whose Los Angeles speech early this year celebrated a "new paradigm" under Bush: market-orientation, decentralization, choice and empowerment. Darman dismissed all this as "little more than slogans."

Pinkerton struck back with exquisite sarcasm: "After the success of the budget agreement, it's good to see Dick rejoining the intellectual dialogue." To the "perestroika group" as well as Kemp and the House Republican leadership, Darman's budget deal was anything but a success. From the presidential party in Paris, a telephone call from Andrew Card (policy aide to Chief of Staff John Sununu) ordered longtime Bush backer Pinkerton to respond no further to Darman. There is no evidence of a similar call to Darman.

While Pinkerton could be stifled, the Republican reaction to Darman's "no-noism" could not. House Republican Whip Gingrich, who long ago came to regard Darman as the enemy, called the speech "silly." William J. Bennett, newly designated to be Republican national chairman, telephoned the budget chief to tell him the same thing.

Five days later, Darman popped into a White House meeting of the enemy: the Empowerment Working Group, about 20 officials including the "perestroika" rebels. Darman announced he was for "empowerment" but against "the new paradigm." He ran on for more than 15 minutes against Pinkerton's thesis. Pinkerton, obeying Sununu's injunction, was silent. With everybody present junior to Darman, there was no rebuttal. "I'm going to come to all your meetings and keep an eye on you," he said, mixing charm and intimidation.

Darman gave what one present called his impersonation of "St. Dick," telling how he had left Harvard Business School to enter public service instead of the private sector in order to crusade for excellence in policy formation. To skeptical colleagues at the White House, he is offering Harvard's policy analysis as a substitute for Republican ideology. The president must decide whether that's what he really wants.