A REPORTER who covered the midwinter meeting of the Republican National Committee in Washington last week reported that in a full day of speeches by National Committee chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, and former Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, not a word was heard about either contras or ``star wars.'' The omission is noteworthy in view of the fact that while the Republicans who have a particular interest in the next election were meeting in one place in Washington, President Reagan at another place (the White House) was working away on his annual State of the Union address (due today), in which his emphasis, according to members of his staff, is on precisely those elements missing at the other place - the Nicaraguan contra rebels and the star-wars missile shield.
When it comes to the agenda for the next year, the President and the leaders of his party do not seem to be going in the same direction.
We have on the one side a President whose agenda is to squeeze down further still on the domestic social services of Democratic Party genesis to make more funds available for carrying on his proxy war against the government of Nicaragua and his arms buildup against the Soviets.
But at that other meeting, Republican chairman Fahrenkopf was saying: ``Compassion is a word we should never be afraid to use. Despite what the Democrats think, compassion doesn't belong just to them.''
And Mr. Dole, who now ranks as runner-up for the GOP nomination in 1988, was quoted as saying:
``We are a sensitive, compassionate party. We are just as concerned with health care and catastrophic health care as the Democrats.... Let no one say this party is going to turn its back on the elderly.''
The three-day Republican meeting began Jan. 21. It was on the day before that one of the party's worries was lightened by the news that White House speech writer Patrick J. Buchanan had decided not to run for the presidency in 1988.
That lightened the load a little for the others, because if Mr. Buchanan had run, there would probably have been at least three candidates off on the far right causing such confusion there that George Bush, usually regarded among Republicans as of questionable conservatism, might have had a walk to the nomination, which the Bush faction would like but other factions would dislike.
Anyway, Buchanan, whose rhetoric makes Ronald Reagan sound like a softie, opted out of the race, largely leaving the right side of the Republican spectrum to Congressman Jack Kemp. The Buchanan withdrawal presumably means that the old conservatives and the ``supply-siders'' and other original Reaganauts can consolidate their efforts behind the Kemp candidacy and hope thereby to save the succession from the Bush, Dole, or Baker factions, all of which are swimming further by the day away from Reagan orthodoxy.
Meanwhile the two most prominent and influential Republican journalists have crossed swords over an issue touching Israel, with interesting implications to the future of the Reagan coalition.
William F. Buckley Jr. is one of the founding fathers of modern Republican conservatism. In his writings in the magazine National Review and in his syndicated column he sets the tone among mainline conservatives. George Will, columnist and television personality, belongs to a special group calling themselves ``neoconservatives.'' By definition of their principal founder, Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, all neoconservatives support Israel.
George Will consistently supports Israel. He supported it to the point of referring on the David Brinkley TV program of Jan. 11 to the ``Vatican's contemptible behavior toward the Holocaust'' and its ``continuing contemptible behavior toward Israel.'' This arose out of the recent visit to Israel of John Cardinal O'Connor, archbishop of New York. The cardinal's failure during that visit to say all the things Israeli supporters apparently expected brought a formal censure of the cardinal by the leading Jewish organization of the United States.
Mr. Buckley took up the cudgels for the cardinal in his column of Jan. 16 and for the Vatican in a further column of Jan 21. The defense was Buckley at his most eloquent. In effect, it was an old-line conservative saying to a neoconservative, you go too far and you ask too much for Israel.
In view of the importance of these two men in their respective groups - orthodox conservatives and neoconservatives - the vigor of the exchange, on both sides, raises a doubt as to how long the neoconservatives will be comfortable under the same tent with the old conservatives.
The Reagan coalition brought together Southern evangelicals with Eastern old-line conservatives and pro-Israel activists. Marginal friction is beginning to show.