The dread D word, usually reserved for NATO, is being hung on the Republicans this week: disarray. If anything, the unfriendly adjective understates the case. Accident and anger, two phenomena assiduously to be avoided in politics, have marked their high-level proceedings. Especially in Washington, what looks to have happened by chance is often as not contrived and controlled, and what looks to be truly furious is fake. Both are part of the playacting. This time both are real. Everyone seems to be fighting with John Sununu or Dick Darman or Newt Gingrich and also in various lively combinations with each other. Something called a "paradigm" is being fought over; something called a budget agreement is being blamed on everyone but Saddam Hussein (so far), and it's getting nice and personal, so we in the press love and encourage it.

I would like to say a word in defense of Republican internecine warfare. It is much more interesting than when the Democrats do it. First, it is a little rarer: Republicans are much better at conducting their stabbing fights behind a curtain somewhere; the Democrats tend to hire a hall and call in the networks. But more important, the Republicans, no matter how old and settled their Grand Old Party is supposed to be, always get into fights over first principles, over self-definition, over who and what they are supposed to be anyway, as if they had no history. They are like the early church in Asia Minor. Democrats are less interesting because they are usually only fighting over how much of their favorite 100-proof whiskey, Old Social Program, to belt back at one time -- a lot or a little or in between -- and, afterward, over who's fit to drive. This is repetitive and tiresome. The Republicans, on the other hand, are full of surprises.

For example, the words "left" and "right," though often employed to cover these combats, don't come close to describing either the combatants or the nature of their disputes. Several groups and/or types and individuals are in play just now:

There are the theologians, those perennial redefiners of Republican doctrine, who are promoting the idea that "empowering" the poor and otherwise disadvantaged in American society, as distinct from ministering to and supporting them, is both humane social policy and doctrinally correct Republicanism. They have an assortment of proposals in mind to fulfill this idea. Some, such as Jack Kemp, their leader, are manifestly sincere and even impassioned in this pursuit. Others give you the idea that they are fooling around, are utterly indifferent to the social ills they purport to be trying to fix in a new Republican way and are in fact just looking for clever rationales for undoing the programs already in place.

A second main group consists of governing-party Republicans -- those fairly comfortable with the status quo, who pretty much accept the machinery of government as it is and want only to fiddle with the valves a little. This is a description they would probably reject because it so goes against their pretense of being outraged outsiders, people trying vainly to get into office so they can dissolve it, governmental minimalists. Dick Darman and people on the Hill (like Bob Dole and Alan Simpson and Bob Michel) and -- dare I say it? -- George Bush are of the Republican governing party. Significantly, too, given the large number of years Republicans have held the executive branch in recent decades, as compared with the Democrats, they have a sizable corps of youngish middle managers who have been working together and kicking around administrations for some time now. They, too, are of the governmentally minded persuasion. By this I mean they are less rigid, less partisan and less bomb throw-y than the others -- or than they admit to being at Republican Lincoln Day dinners.

It is between people in these two broad, general groupings that the warfare has broken out this fall and winter, set off by the budget proceedings and fueled by personal animus. But naturally there are many complications, a few of which are worth mentioning:

(1) The immigration into the GOP of the so-called neoconservatives -- for the most part highly brainy and articulate converts from liberalism -- has altered the mix. William Bennett is one and his short-lived accession to the party leadership represented quite a coup for them; they tend to be on the side of the theologians and to lend them a particular kind of intellectual respectability, although among many old-time conservatives they are held in great suspicion. (2) There is the White House chief of staff, John Sununu, who represents the pure pug strain of politics; his bark is not worse than his bite. Sununu's kind of combativeness is sometimes necessary, sometimes unnecessary and disastrous and never in either circumstance loved. He reminds me a lot of former House Republican leader Charles Halleck, whose favorite (some said only) discourse with Democrats was "Gotcha licked!" (3) Finally there are the usual jealousies and resentments within all the camps that have made things even more turbulent.

Is it any wonder that people are having a hard time sorting out the motives and intent of the policy statements that occasionally issue forth from this collectivity? Does it speak in good faith, or what? Right now we are being told, for instance, that only for the most high-minded, socially fair and constitutionally impeccable of reasons, the Republicans are planning to go after quotas and reverse discrimination in American life. There are some legitimate questions to be debated here, just as there were concerning Governor Dukakis's incredible freeing of Willie Horton. But then the watchword of the old Goldwater campaign ("Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue") was unimpeachable, too, a fitting epitaph for noble revolutionaries. The problem was, just as it became with the Willie Horton headshots and will be, one fears, in the coming quota discussion, that the subtext was about something else; surely for some of its orchestrators the 1990 antiquota theme will be geared only to capitalizing on antiblack sentiment in this country.

I have no doubt that some of the promoters of this new discussion are sincere. I also have no doubt that plenty of them are just looking for a chance to play Willie Horton, round two. There are other issues that follow the same pattern. That is why the Republican turmoil, though entertaining, is also confounding. Which of these guys represents the administration's true voice?