Shortly after the fulfillment of the Republican “Contract With America,” I spoke on a panel assessing the first 100 days of the 104th Congress. The gathering was a Washington meeting of charter members of GOPAC, the Republican candidate-recruitment and training organization closely associated with House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The charter members, as you might expect, are heavy contributors to the organization, which deserves a substantial measure of credit for the success over the years not only of GOP congressional candidates but also of Republican candidates at the state level. The GOP has done an extraordinary job of recruiting more and better-qualified candidates for office in recent years and providing them with ammunition on how best to get their message out; GOPAC has been central to that effort.

Thus the members are highly committed and have seen remarkable indications of their success – most visibly, obviously, in the ascendancy of Gingrich to the speakership. As a group, the members clearly are de-voted to Gingrich as their political hero. While this group is conservative in conventional political terms, it also is animated by the speaker’s unquenchable enthusiasm for the future.

I give this background because I was genuinely surprised by the question-and-answer period, the recurring theme of which was: Why do we have to vote to repeal the ban on assault weapons? This was something many in the audience did not want to see happen – some out of a personal conviction that such weapons are bad news, others perhaps agnostic on the issue but worried about the political fallout.

Now, I fancy myself a student of conservative politics and have even made something of a gleeful subspecialty over the years explaining its outlines to befuddled liberals, who tend to be clueless about the train that is in the process of running over them. They have a vague impression of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals with guns and Bibles, and that’s about it. So I often have found myself explaining that conservatives come in all shapes and sizes and have divergent views on a wide range of subjects. Still, I would not have guessed that so many people in the GOPAC audience would come out where they apparently did on guns.

The issue of the so-called assault-weapons ban is now more or less off the table, but it will be back. And I’m sorry to say that I don’t think my answer to the GOPAC audience did much to dispel their concerns on the issue. I thought I’d better try it again, because the issue is important and actually has very little to do with guns.

Practical politics is coalition politics, and what the GOP is undertaking – with much success to date but with no assurance yet of victory – is the creation of a coalition-based electoral majority to supplant permanently the FDR/New Deal Democratic coalition that dominated American politics for about 60 years. That FDR/New Deal coalition was a wondrous thing to behold. You recall the GOP “big tent.” How about a tent so big it includes blacks and Southern segregationists, urban ethnics and Midwestern farmers straight out of “American Gothic.” Now that was a tent.

Coalition politics works like this: Each member organization or group has its own particular concerns ranging from things about which it feels very strongly to things about which it is lukewarm to things that it’s against. Members agree that they will support each other vigorously wherever they can – that is, whenever support does not offend a basic principle.

Consider the Christian Coalition and the Contract With America. It’s fair to say that tort reform, an element of the contract, is not exactly the top issue in the hearts of the 1.6 million active members of the Christian Coalition. But the Christian Coalition emphatically does not stand silent on tort reform. It supports it to the hilt – because there is no reason not to and because there are elements in the contract, such as the family tax credit, that are major issues for the group. The tort-reform people, in turn, support the family tax credit.

In addition, the Christian Coalition has some ideas of its own it wants to advance in the not-too-distant future. They will come together under the “Contract with the American Family.” The Christian Coalition will hope for as much support for the provisions of its contract from other coalition members as the Christian Coalition provides them on their issues.

Uh-oh. But what about the more controversial elements on each group’s agenda? What about a constitutional amendment to ban abortion? And what about that vote to repeal the assault-weapons ban that is so important to the National Rifle Association, another coalition member? This is, of course, the deadly proving ground of coalition politics. If you want an example of a coalition breaking apart because of such an issue, look at what is happening to the Democrats over affirmative action. The black leadership establishment is absolutely unwilling to accept any change in the status quo; yet the status quo is poison for the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” who are being offered a real alternative by Republicans. From the other side, this is very amusing to watch.

The answer is that each group has a responsibility to be responsible – to recognize that its maximum wishes are beyond the power of the coalition to deliver, and therefore not to insist on them.

A constitutional amendment to ban abortion is not a part of the Contract with the American Family. A religious-freedom amendment is. That’s different. Similarly, the NRA was perfectly prepared to go along with a postponement of the assault-weapons vote, because the political climate in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing was not propitious for such a vote.

In coalition politics, members are interested not just in making a point. They are interested in winning. Splitting equals losing.