In 1981, Ronald Reagan arrived in Washington with a Republican-controlled Senate ready to sweep a conservative revolution into power. In his first meeting with his new Cabinet, he handed each of them a copy of the Heritage Foundation’s 3,000 page Mandate for Leadership Report — the playbook for this revolution. Within weeks, Capitol Hill was blitzed with new legislative proposals that left it spinning. The Mandate for Leadership was not just a compendium of policy recommendations; it was a targeted hit list of liberal programs and leadership across all federal agencies.
Orchestrated with active, behind-the-scenes support from the Heritage Foundation, this effort was highly successful. Of some 2,000 recommendations in the Heritage report, 60% were approved and implemented under Reagan. These included a purge of liberal leadership and scaling back of unpopular units like the IRS audit unit for high-net-worth individuals. The war on big government was unleashed under Reagan and carried on in full force during the Bush administration.
Bill Clinton’s arrival slowed the revolution; however, chastened by his loss of private sector support in his second campaign for governor of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton came to the presidency a neo-liberal Democrat ready to play within the bounds of the Heritage playbook. While undertaking a massive effort to reform health care and advance environmental goals, it was Mr. Clinton who repealed the Glass-Steagall law that protected mom and pop’s savings from Wall Street speculators and contributed to the 2008 financial market meltdown. It was also Mr. Clinton who reformed the welfare system on Republican terms. Barack Obama had other issues to focus on, having inherited the worst economic recession since 1929, and he chose to prioritize health care reform in the first several years.
Although the Heritage Foundation fell out of favor with the Republican Party in 2013 — when it attacked Republicans for not being conservative enough on key legislation — it roared back to life with the arrival of Donald Trump. Mr. Trump did not anticipate that he was going to win the election, and his transition process reflected that. While Reagan had the Heritage playbook two years prior to his election, Mr. Trump had to engage in a mad scramble to assemble a motley transition team and fill some 2,000-plus federal appointments. Months went by without nominees for key department roles, ambassadorships or judicial appointments.
Into this vacuum, once again, stepped the Heritage Foundation with their playbook and then some.
Long lists of Obama-era executive orders were canceled, appointees purged, sectors deregulated and judicial appointments rushed through a Republican controlled Senate and House. The Heritage Foundation reports that over 60% of its policy recommendations to the Trump administration have been approved and implemented, recommendations that in many cases are far more extreme than those passed in the Reagan era. The Brookings Institute and the New York Times published a list of 100 pieces of environmental legislation alone that this administration has trashed or is in the process of trashing. The Economic Policy Institute published another 50 dealing with labor protections.
The Democratic Party is a contentious collection of interest groups, all of whom want their issues represented, so developing an effective playbook for the party is no easy task. The Center for American Progress (CAP) is a modest antidote to the massive funding for the likes of Heritage, the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, among others, but it has never tried to orchestrate a transition blitz with the scale and military precision that Heritage pulled off in 1980.
The Georgia Senate elections will determine whether Joe Biden has years to legislate reforms with a Democratic-led Congress or if he must focus on what he can do through executive powers, which are still considerable. In the coming weeks, Mr. Biden’s transition should promise a more progressive heritage for this country — that’s what won Georgia, Pennsylvania and the country for the president-elect. It’s time Democrats mounted their own blitz in the first 100 days in service of equality, justice, norms, decorum, accountability, transparency and dignity. After four years of Donald Trump, the American people deserve nothing less.