WASHINGTON - For the past decade, the words ``liberal'' and ``Republican'' have been like oil and water, Mozart and Merle Haggard, Iraq and Iran: You just didn't bring them together, and if you did, you were taking great risks.
That was not the theory of a collection of young moderates and liberals who hung around together in Cambridge, Mass., and decided in December 1963 that what the Republican Party needed was more intellectual energy and a strong dose of liberal politics. They founded the Ripon Society, named after the town in Wisconsin where, according to one version of history, the Republican Party was founded in 1854. Their heroes were such people as Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay, Jacob Javits and William Scranton.
Seen from one angle, life has never been anything but dismal for Ripon Republicans. Seven months after the society was founded, the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, just the man Ripon did not want as the party's presidential nominee. Then came Richard Nixon, Watergate and Ronald Reagan.
But Ripon survived. And Ripon members who gathered for their annual fund-raiser at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill recently can make a case that the Republican Party is moving, at least a little, in their direction.
Ripon leaders can usually get their phone calls to the White House returned these days. President Bush sent a warm note that was read at the dinner. Ripon members, he said, ``have not only worked to expand the ranks of the Republican Party but also enlivened numerous public-policy debates at the state and national level.''
Two top members of the administration, William Reilly, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel, showed up to accept awards.
The Bush-Ripon friendship goes back a long way. Ripon made what turned out to be a prescient choice when it selected Bush as one of a relatively small number of House Republicans that the society endorsed for re-election in 1968. According to Josiah Lee Auspitz, who has been a member of Ripon since 1965, Ripon offered to endorse Bush for the Senate against Lloyd Bentsen in 1970, but Bush turned the group down. In a race in which Bentsen was attacking Bush from the right, Bush didn't much want an endorsement from a bunch of liberals, most of whom hailed from Cambridge or New York City.
Ripon-style Republicans are not nearly so alienated from mainstream conservatives these days. Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., not anyone's idea of a liberal Republican, was elected House whip last year with the support of some Ripon sympathizers. Gingrich gave a long interview to the Ripon Forum last year. Once upon a time, Gingrich appearing in the Ripon Forum would have been like Fidel Castro making a guest appearance on Radio Marti.
If you want to know how important Ripon-type Republicans are, William McKenzie, Ripon's executive director, will tell you that many of the Republican Party's best hopes in this fall's Senate elections are moderates or liberals, such as Reps. Claudine Schneider in Rhode Island, Pat Saiki in Hawaii, Lynn Martin in Illinois and Tom Tauke in Iowa. Martin and Schneider were at the Ripon dinner; Tauke is on Ripon's advisory board.
So who's changed over the years, Ripon or the Republicans? The answer is both.
While Ripon is now on solid footing after years of sickly finances, its $250,000 annual budget makes it a mom-and-pop operation compared with some of Washington's conservative giants, such as the Heritage Foundation.
Yet Ripon has always managed to have an influence beyond its membership numbers or budget. To the surprise of many, Richard Nixon took a sympathetic view of many of Ripon's proposals - for revenue sharing and the volunteer Army, for example - when he took office and even hired some Ripon members.
When John Anderson bolted the Republican Party to run for president as an independent in 1980, many of the remaining Ripon-types, including McKenzie, went with him. But McKenzie, for one, returned, and he and Leach kept Ripon together during the Reagan years as a faithful liberal (or, as Ripon preferred in those years, ``moderate'') remnant.
The Bush years, Ripon's members insist, will be much better than the past was, partly because the issues are changing. The revival of the political battle over abortion, for example, has given Ripon, whose members generally favor abortion rights, a new issue to use in rallying upper-middle-class Republicans.
Conservatives are also showing a new interest in old Ripon causes, like fighting poverty.