Massachusetts' Republican Party, now but a shadow of its once mighty self, is not about to fade away. But the GOP's return to political sunshine is by no means assured, despite radiant optimism among party bigwigs.
Much will depend on whether Republican activists are successful in gaining visibility for their ideas and their candidates.
For this, the party's newly formed ''shadow cabinet'' could be particularly helpful. The 12-member panel, intended to shape and propose alternative policies to those of the Democratic state administration of Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, is sure to be heard from in coming months.
Less certain, however, is whether the panel will become a constructive influence toward a better-run commonwealth or just another exercise in frustration for the GOP. Thus, instead of rushing forth with a torrent of proposals, members of the Republican panel would be well advised to target their fire on a few well-chosen problems.
If the unofficial state cabinet is to become anything more than than a chorus of partisan critics, the quality of its early ideas and recommendations must be commendable. While unlikely to find all policies and programs of the Dukakis regime to its satisfaction, the GOP cabinet, to be effective, should unhesitatingly applaud whenever it believes the Democrats are on the right track.
For their part, the Dukakis administration and the Democratic leadership in the state legislature owe it to themselves carefully to weigh proposals introduced by the GOP cabinet. No political party has a corner on the best ideas for steering the commonwealth.
Massachusetts Republican state chairman Andrew S. Natsios, in shaping the shadow cabinet, made sure each member has some familiarity with his or her assignment on the panel. Republican officeholders were deliberately overlooked because, even if they could find time to serve, they could hardly bring a sufficiently detached view to the mission.
This is not to say that the shadow cabinet is a collection of governmental amateurs. Two of the members - Mary B. Newman of Cambridge and Paul W. Cronin of Andover - have served in the state legislature. Mrs. Newman, one of the most highly respected forces on the Massachusetts civic scene for almost four decades , was also state secretary of manpower affairs in the administration of former Republican Gov. Francis W. Sargent. Mr. Cronin has served a term in Congress.
There are just as many Democrats in the Natsios-appointed panel as there are Republicans in the Dukakis cabinet - none. But one member of the GOP's state cabinet was, until recently, a life-long Democrat. Former US Attorney Edward F. Harrington of Needham, who joined Republican ranks only a few months ago, will be the shadow team's public safety secretary.
Like the Dukakis cabinet, the Republican task force has four women. Besides Mrs. Newman, whose area of specialization will be human services, Phyllis A. Austin of West Springfield, Marjorie M. Perry of Boston, and Ann Wood of Manchester will serve in the GOP cabinet.
The latter, a pilot and former airline vice-president, will be the GOP counterpart to secretary of transportation and construction. Ms. Austin, executive secretary of the Springfield Council of Churches, will serve in a role that parallels the state secretary of communities and development. Mrs. Perry, a former officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and now a financial analyst for the Boston Health and Hospitals Department, is the Republican panel's secretary of elder affairs.
The business and economic communities are also well represented in the Republican cabinet. Harvard Business School Prof. W. Carl Kester of Cambridge will be the ''shadow'' secretary of administration and finance. Jay P. Barger of Burlington, chief executive officer of Dynatech Corporation, will be the GOP's secretary of economic affairs. Clark C. Abt of Cambridge, president of the research firm ABT Associates, is the secretary for environmental affairs. And former congressman Cronin, now president of the solar energy firm Sunsav, will be the shadow cabinet's secretary for energy affairs.
Others on the GOP team are Neil L. Chayet, a Boston lawyer and radio legal-affairs commentator serving as secretary for consumer affairs; Joseph E. Benevides of New Bedford, a leader in the Brotherhood of Utility Workers union, as secretary for labor affairs; and Lowell C. Smith of Dudley, president of Nichols College, as secretary for educational affairs.
The educational post was abolished by former Democratic Gov. Edward J. King. However, a gubernatorial appointee whose specialty is education does sit in on cabinet sessions in an unofficial capacity.
The shadowing corps, as well qualified and dedicated as its members seem to be, in most instances lacks the necessary resources to carry out its assignments effectively.
The secretaries of the Dukakis cabinet are outwardly welcoming the shadow cabinet. It remains to be seen how cooperative they will be in providing whatever may be needed to shape an informed alternative proposal.
Another potential limitation facing the GOP panel is time. Most of the members already have business or professional responsibilities, which they are not about to give up.
Besides zeroing in on programs and proposals in their areas of responsibility , members of the Republican team will attend GOP cabinet meetings. These regular sittings, the first scheduled for later this month or early September, will function as a sounding board for proposals from shadow secretaries.
Unanimity of opinion within the shadow cabinet may be difficult to achieve, despite the GOP label of all 12 participants. There are bound to be some hot debates if the panel is to produce fresh and imaginative policies and programs for state government. What the Massachusetts GOP least needs is a team of political hand-wringers - which is what the shadow cabinet could easily become.