HOUSE Republican whip Newt Gingrich says it was unspeakable of budget director Richard Darman to have ridiculed the latest catch phrase of the right in a recent speech. "If he stands by the written speech of one week ago, I don't see how we can work with a Republican Dukakis," Mr. Gingrich said in remarks of his own the other evening. "Darman must either withdraw the speech or leave."

As if that ultimatum weren't melodramatic enough, the assistant minority leader then shifted into a still higher gear. If his remarks turned out to be "unacceptable to my conference," the conference of all House Republicans, then "I will resign," he said, causing fervent prayers to go up all over town.

You may wonder what it is all about. At one level it involves not competing ideologies, as Mr. Gingrich would have it, but little more than words and political window dressing. Some members of the administration want President Bush to adopt a domestic agenda under the heading of empowerment, a word meant to convey the liberation of people, poor people especially, from the supposedly crushing weight of government. Mr. Darman suggested in his speech that he thought this was a) not a new idea and b) more a slogan than the stuff of a presidency. He called it "neo-neo-ism," which we're fairly sure is a derisive term, because Mr. Gingrich in his speech then accused Mr. Darman of advancing "technocratic nihilism," and you know there's nothing good about that.

At another level, this is indeed a fight about ideology -- a failed one. The Republican Party in the Reagan years pursued the contradictory policy goals of lower taxes and higher defense spending without a dangerous increase in the deficit. It said it could attain the goals in part because the tax increases would be stimulative, but also because there were great tubs of fat to be taken out of domestic spending. But not even Mr. Reagan, much less George Bush, could ever identify the necessary domestic spending cuts, and in 10 years the national debt rose from $1 trillion to more than $3 trillion.

Mr. Bush, having campaigned on the same policy and a pledge of no new taxes, had the good sense, albeit belatedly, to abandon both this year and cut a balanced deficit reduction deal with Congress. Mr. Darman was his willing agent in this. Mr. Gingrich and others are mad because the president's moment of responsibility cost them their political toy. It's counterproductive for them to attack the president; they want Mr. Darman as a trophy instead. Then if the president will only use the vocabulary of empowerment to recast the government (and the taxes that support it) as the enemy of initiative that they know it to be, they'll be almost back in business. And they'll still have Mr. Gingrich.