ONE of the enduring political fallacies in this country is that the Democratic Party is a broad coalition, while the Republican Party is a conservative monolith.
Another is the so-called 11th Commandment: ''Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.''
In reality, both parties are broad regional and ideological coalitions. And Republicans are perfectly capable of saying nasty things about each other.
Both myths came into play last week when a group of conservatives and representatives of the Christian right - two groups that overlap but are not identical - took aim at Colin Powell when he was still believed a likely candidate. The charge: ''Not a Republican.'' The evidence: General Powell's pro-choice stand on abortion and his reference to himself - which he probably now regrets - as a ''Rockefeller Republican.'' Commenting on Powell, Massachusetts GOP leader Jim Rappaport told a radio interviewer that Nelson Rockefeller was a ''horrible governor'' of New York.
Well, well, well. These are not the views of all Republicans, let alone all conservatives. They bring to mind the tactics used by supporters of Sen. Robert Taft, the Republican conservative of 1952, against Dwight Eisenhower, that year's moderate general. Or the GOP convention of 1964, in which Goldwater conservatives greeted Rockefeller with a chorus of catcalls. Goldwater got the nomination that eluded Taft, but neither was elected president.
It's been conventional wisdom in recent years to refer to the moderate wing of the Republican Party as moribund or nonexistent. That's shallow analysis, and it's wrong. Especially in the US Senate, moderates have proved a force to be reckoned with.
Conservative Republicans who think they can win elections and govern without the party's moderate wing had better think again. It's been said, accurately, that America is not a conservative country, but a right-of-center country. Many voters are clearly ready to endorse large segments of the Contract With America. But there was nothing in the contract about abortion or school prayer. A recent opinion poll of likely primary voters showed most Republicans to be far less conservative than usually assumed.
Another political party's ideological wing - this one liberal - once decided it could do without its centrists, without its rural members, without white Southerners, without pro-lifers. A review of the Democrats' electoral fortunes since 1972, especially at the presidential level and in Southern statehouses, is all you need to evaluate the effect of that kind of thinking.
The anti-Powell cabal appeared desperately worried that he would run. The presence of a prominent Dole supporter among them shows that the effort might have been something other than it seemed. Conservatives might not get all they want if a GOP moderate were elected president. But they'd get a lot more than they would from Bill Clinton's second term.
Conservatives who think they can govern without GOP moderates had better think again.