For those committed to the conservative agenda, these are the best of times and the worst of times. To Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation and an icon of the ideological right, the United States has become a forbidding place where the majority has succumbed to a depraved "cultural Marxism . . . an ever-wider sewer."

But when Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of the conservative journal First Things, looks at the same country, prospects are "very promising."

Less than four years ago, Neuhaus was himself an unhappy conservative, warning in editorials that pro abortion-rights, pro-euthanasia judges were threatening the very essence of democracy, establishing moral justification for a rebellion on the right. Conversely, a year ago, Weyrich was upbeat, looking forward to the toppling of a detested president and the coalescence of the political right behind a presidential candidate who would seek a mandate to restore moral order.

These dramatic mood swings are not confined to Weyrich and Neuhaus. They have become a pattern for a conservative movement that rose to power with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, suffered a setback in 1992, came back with the 1994 GOP takeover of the House and Senate, and sank back into defeat in 1996 and 1998.

The conservative paradox grows out of the fact that the movement's influence is great at the same time that its political power is waning. Much of the conservative agenda has been achieved: welfare reform, a balanced budget, tougher sentencing policies and the defeat of communism. Similarly, the demographic trends most disturbing to conservatives--rates of welfare dependency, teenage pregnancy, abortion and crime--have declined or leveled off. Conservatism shapes much of the platform of one political party (the GOP) and has helped force the other party (the Democrats) to move to the center. But Christian right candidates, especially those running for seats in the House, lost in disproportionate numbers in 1996 and 1998.

Significantly successful in terms of policy, but a failure in terms of popularity, social and religious conservatism has tasted power only to face bitter internal conflicts: between Jews and black conservatives; between Catholics and evangelical Protestants; between purists and pragmatists; and between pessimistic Calvinists and optimistic visionaries.

For the Republican Party, a mobilized and energetic conservative wing is crucial to victory. The 1994 election, for example, was marked by exceptionally strong turnout among self-identified conservative voters, and their ballots were crucial to the success that year of Republican candidates at all levels, from state legislatures to the Senate.

For seven years, President Clinton has been the devil incarnate to many on the right. Their hatred of the president is so intense that some conservatives are convinced that it has become an Achilles' heel for the GOP, promoting a belief among many voters that Republican attempts to unseat Clinton were motivated more by unconstrained animosity than by principle.

"The past year, with impeachment, was not the finest year for cultural conservatives," said one influential conservative intellectual, who declined to be identified as he criticized his ideological allies. Conservatives appeared to be looking down their noses at average citizens, he said, presenting themselves as "better" than the majority of voters who were opposed to the effort to bring down the president.

In American politics, few things are as damaging as conveying a sense of moral superiority.

These difficulties have been compounded by some of the radical inclinations of conservatism. In late 1996, for example, Neuhaus's monthly journal set off a firestorm of protest when it published a symposium on "The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics."

In an introductory essay, the editors of First Things suggested that the judiciary, by upholding the legal right to abortion, which they equated with state-sponsored murder, has placed the United States on a course dangerously close to that of Nazi Germany: "America is not and, please God, will never become Nazi Germany, but it is only blind hubris that denies it can happen here and, in peculiarly American ways, may be happening here."

The First Things editorial drove a wedge through the fragile alliance between conservative Christians and Jews with center-right leanings. Historically adversaries, the two groups had found a common bond, first in their shared hostility to the student revolts of the late 1960s, and then through their shared opposition to what they saw as the excesses of the sexual revolution and to liberal support for such policies as affirmative action.

Jewish neoconservatives were particularly infuriated by what seemed to be an endorsement of an assault on the civil state by the editors of First Things. "For heaven's sake do not be reckless about the legitimacy of this country (calling it a 'regime' does not disguise what is at stake here). You will only end by strengthening the devil's hand," wrote neoconservative Midge Decter in a letter to the journal.

At the same time, efforts by conservatives to build support among blacks were set back by the angry reaction of African-American conservatives Glenn Loury and Robert Woodson to books on race by two conservative authors, neither of whom is black: Charles Murray ("The Bell Curve") and Dinesh D'Souza ("The End of Racism"). In a highly publicized decision, Loury and Woodson resigned in protest in 1995 from the American Enterprise Institute, where Murray and D'Souza are fellows.

Perhaps the most painful experience of all for religious and "moral values" conservatives was the public's support of Clinton throughout the impeachment process and the clear failure of Republicans to build consensus for his ouster.

"It is not a polling trick, or a healthy or conservative sign, when the majority of the public, confronted with overwhelming evidence of presidential wrongdoing and squalor, perjury and obstruction of justice, rally to his side," wrote an anguished William J. Bennett, author of "The Book of Virtues," in the Wall Street Journal. Popular support for Clinton is what convinced Weyrich that the moral majority had become the moral minority.

The struggles of conservatism have strengthened the hand of Republican centrists and moderates who argue that GOP presidential candidates have to soften their harsh edges, along the lines of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism."

The result, for such hard-right candidates as Gary Bauer, Patrick J. Buchanan and Sen. Bob Smith, an independent from of New Hampshire, is a growing conviction that they have been marginalized by the very party that claims the conservative banner.

"I would not say that anything that would doom the Clinton legacy is bad, but what I want as an alternative to that legacy is a Reagan-type vision, not this shapeless, formless sort of celebrity approach to a presidential campaign," Bauer said, referring to the Bush candidacy.

The marginalization of the right is a particularly bitter pill in the aftermath of the 1994 election, when conservatism appeared to be on the cutting edge of a massive realignment. "There was such excitement in '94 over the fact that people believed the Republican Party was going to deliver on its promises," said James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, a conservative organization based in Colorado Springs. "Forty-three percent of the total vote came from those who identified themselves as born-again Christians and pro-lifers. Nine million new voters came out. That is what put the Republicans in power; two years later, those numbers dropped to 29 percent."

Adding fuel to the fire on the right is the fact that, largely because of the efforts of the conservative movement, the very nature of elections in this country has changed. In recent years, it could be argued that presidential contests, especially, have become referendums on values and religious beliefs.

"The 1996 elections reflected not the absence of values but rather a clash of values. The campaign revealed both the death throes of an old political order and the birth pangs of a new one," wrote political scientists John C. Green, Lyman Kellstedt, James L. Guth and Corwin E. Smidt in First Things. Their analysis of 1996 poll data suggests that the core of the Democratic Party has become secular, made up of nonreligious voters and religious "modernists." In sharp contrast, the core of the Republican Party is made up of religious traditionalists who are "strongly pro-life, especially compared to their modernist counterparts, and all gave high priority to social issues."

This divide, the authors argue, "will make cultural values increasingly important. . . . But, as we have seen, neither party can win with its core supporters alone. . . . As a result, a complex weave of values is likely to be the norm, sometimes cast in big, bright colors and sometimes, as in [the Clinton campaign of] 1996, sewn in small, gray stitches."

As some conservatives, including Bauer, Buchanan, Dobson, Weyrich and Smith, dissent in this election cycle from strategies "sewn in small, gray stitches," their complaints are prompting increasing anger among Republican Party regulars.

"There is a segment of the right that doesn't care about winning, what I call zealotry masquerading as principle," said former Republican Party chairman Richard Bond.

"The good news is Ronald Reagan won; the bad news is Ronald Reagan created these monsters who are out there wishing, hope upon hope, that we can return to the glory days of Ronald Reagan. Well, that's over, guys," said Republican lobbyist Tom Korologos. "They are gloom and doomers, and they are going to send us down the sewer again if we are not careful."

The issue for conservatives is whether they will see the world in terms of what they have gained, or in terms of what they have failed to achieve.

Less than three years ago, for example, former Nixon aide Charles Colson, who served time for Watergate-related offenses and is now the chairman of the Prison Fellowship ministry, openly questioned whether "government [has] become sufficiently corrupt that Christians must actively resist it." This year, however, Colson declared in Christianity Today that it is "a time for Christians to celebrate, to blow trumpets and fly the flag high."

As the 2000 election approaches, the choice for many on the right will be between flying the flag high somewhere in the rear of the Republican parade, or marching to a different drummer at the head of another parade altogether.

Thomas Edsall is a political reporter for The Washington Post.