The First Mandate

THERE ARE ONLY 10 WEEKS between a presidential election and a presidential inauguration, and yet, in that brief period, a president-elect must pick his cabinet and his chief advisers, including his national security adviser and his chief budget officer; write his inaugural address setting the tone for his administration; and decide which of his campaign pledges he is going to implement in his first hundred days. He must shift, literally overnight, from a politicking to a governing mode and become the president, not just of the political coalition that elected him, but of all the people. So complex a task is made even more difficult when the incoming president is of a different political party and governing philosophy from that of the outgoing chief executive.

Several trustees of The Heritage Foundation had been involved in this very experience in 1968. It was Jack Eckerd, head of the General Services Administration under President Nixon, who first suggested at a trustees’ meeting in October 1979, that the foundation should help the process by drawing up a plan of action for a possible conservative administration in January 1981. While no one could say with certainty who the Republican nominee would be, he was bound to be to the right of President Carter, and stood an excellent chance of being elected.

Heritage should take on this enormous task because, it was argued, the new administration, preoccupied with electoral politics, would have given little thought to governing. Robert Krieble proposed that the foundation produce a manual that would help policymakers “cut the size of government and manage it more effectively.”

“Our strong feeling,” explained Ed Feulner, “was that the people of the new and hopefully conservative administration should have some source of information and guidance other than what you get from the incumbents you replace.” In the Nixon transition, he pointed out, “Republicans were briefed by Democrats, the very people whose jobs were at stake and who had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.”

The status quo was the last thing The Heritage Foundation wanted to preserve. Feulner, Phil Truluck, Willa Johnson, and other Heritage staff, went to work. Charles Heatherly, a former field director of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute agreed to undertake the overall direction of the Heritage study, beginning November 15, 1979.

Heritage staff began by drawing up a list of key conservatives to talk to, starting with Paul Weyrich and experienced Senate staffer Margo Carlisle, who joined Heritage in the late 1980s as vice president and director of government relations. They also began listing people in the Nixon administrations, like William Simon and Caspar Weinberger, from whom they could draw lessons.While Heatherly concentrated on the policy blueprint, Willa Johnson was tasked with “organizing a Talent Bank for the new administration.” All agreed from the beginning that policy and personnel had to fit together.

At the trustees meeting in December 1979, Feulner submitted a general plan based on the notion that conservatives had to be prepared to answer the question, “What is the conservative agenda, particularly for the First Hundred Days?” As Feulner later explained in the foreword to Mandate for Leadership, the recommendations were concrete proposals which if implemented would help “revitalize our economy, strengthen our national security and halt the centralization of power in the federal government.”

In late January 1980, Heatherly wrote a five-page outline titled Mandate for Leadership. He proposed a team approach that would “scope out” every key department and agency of government. Each team would have a chairman and a co-chairman, and would include academics, conservatives who had been Nixon and Ford appointees, and congressional staff.

Ultimately, more than 250 experts served on twenty teams, while dozens more contributed ideas and information. Heatherly wrote to both the Reagan-Bush and Carter-Mondale campaigns, offering to meet with them on the Heritage project. No one from Carter-Mondale headquarters ever called back, but Reagan- Bush quickly responded.

By June [of 1980], having won twentynine of thirty-three primaries and received 60 percent of the popular vote, Reagan had far more than the 998 delegates he needed for the nomination. He turned over the major responsibility for what he should do if elected to his longtime aide Edwin Meese III, who was also serving as deputy campaign director under William Casey.

Meese visited Heritage in the early spring and was briefed on Mandate. In July, Heritage decided to hold a dinner for the team chairmen and co-chairmen at the University Club in Washington. Ed Meese was a surprise guest and gave Mandate “his blessing,” removing any doubt as to how the study would be received by the administration.

By now, everyone realized he was working on an unprecedented document, unprecedented for Washington and unprecedented for Heritage.

Indeed, never before had such a critical mass of conservatives come together to debate and determine their positions on such a wide range of subjects. The process gave the Reagan administration and the conservative movement itself a running start in going to bat for the initiatives.

The New York Times dubbed the mammoth report “a guideline [for] the Reagan team.” The Washington Post called it “an action plan for turning the government toward the right as fast as possible.” And United Press International described it as “a blueprint for grabbing the government by its frayed New Deal lapels and shaking out 48 years of liberal policies.”


Lee Edwards is Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at The Heritage Foundation. This article is excerpted with permission from his book, The Power of Ideas: The Heritage Foundation at 25 Years. His latest book is The Essential Ronald Reagan: A Profile in Courage, Justice and Wisdom.