Politics & Policy

The Heritage Mandate

Government grows, but a famous book shrinks.

“It is time for Washington to take steps to restrain its growth,” says the new edition of Mandate for Leadership, the Heritage Foundation’s quadrennial guidebook to conservative governance. From the looks of it, however, nobody’s taking this advice seriously except for the Heritage Foundation itself. At the dawn of the Reagan era, the Mandate was a 3,000-page behemoth. Today’s version, in the midst of the W. epoch, is a 156-page featherweight. You could fold in it half and slip it in your back pocket.

This is a very good thing–but certainly not because there’s less for conservatives in government to do.

By now, Mandate for Leadership is a Beltway institution. The first one was published in 1980, when the Heritage Foundation was a young think tank looking to make its mark in the nation’s capital. It decided to take a big gamble with its small budget and disgorge a 20-volume treatise dedicated to the proposition that the federal government didn’t have to be so darn huge–as well as to the hope that Ronald Reagan would win the presidential election and accept its advice.

The bet paid off: Reagan triumphed, and the Heritage Foundation was ready to supply his team with a magnum opus of wonkery–a detailed blueprint full of policy minutiae for an incoming administration. All of a sudden, Mandate for Leadership was the hottest book in town. A paperback version of nearly 1,100 pages hit the bestseller lists in D.C. Everybody had to have a copy. One of its first purchasers, in fact, was an aide at the Soviet embassy.

The Washington Post called Mandate for Leadership “an action plan for turning the government toward the right as fast as possible.” Yet it wasn’t the sort of tome that kept readers awake through the night. More likely, it put them to sleep. Here’s how Lee Edwards, in his book The Power of Ideas: The Heritage Foundation at 25 Years, describes some of its contents: “Several administrations had called for the acceleration of offshore oil leasing programs. What made [the Mandate‘s] analysis unique was that it specified particular lease parcels–Nos. 53 and 68 in California and No. 68 in the Gulf of Mexico–that should be moved up in the schedule.”

I’ve always thought that moving up lease parcel No. 53 in California was a stroke of right-wing genius.

Anyway, Mandate for Leadership has gone down in policy-geek history as one of the most important publications ever issued by a think tank of any political stripe. The Reagan administration wound up hiring many of its key contributors, including Bill Bennett (as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and later as Education secretary) and James Watt (as Interior secretary). The Heritage Foundation went on to publish hefty sequels in 1984 (568 pages), 1988 (953 pages), and 1996 (760 pages). None was quite as ambitious as the first one, but each bore an uncanny resemblance to a telephone book.

So why does this year’s version look more like Cliff’s Notes? It’s not as if the government has gotten any smaller. In 1980, federal outlays totaled $591 billion, meaning that the 3,000-page Mandate had about one page for every $197 million Congress was spending. This year, the government is projected to spend $2.48 trillion, or about $11.2 billion for each of the 156 pages in the new Mandate.

In a press release, the Heritage Foundation explains that Mandate for Leadership now “serves a different purpose.” The first edition appeared on the scene when conservative ideas were unfamiliar to many people. “Today, those principles are well established in Washington, well accepted by American voters, and well understood everywhere in terms of how they translate into policy,” says Heritage president Ed Feulner.

The Mandate remains a vital playbook for conservatives. It outlines worthy goals and describes practical ways to realize them. In a section on federal spending, for instance, Brian M. Reidl and Alison Fraser set forth this principle: “The focus of budget control policy should be on reducing spending as a proportion of national income, not on reducing the deficit.” To get there, they propose a new federal budget process that includes spending caps, binding budget resolutions, and improved enforcement. Reidl and Fraser manage to stuff all this into a few paragraphs.

Want more detail? Then read Reidl’s 23-page paper on “How to Get Federal Spending Under Control,” which is also known as Heritage Backgrounder No. 1733. Or check out any of the other reports connected to the “Curbing Federal Spending” portion of the Mandate for Leadership website.

If I had an intern I didn’t like, I’d ask him to add up all the pages of Heritage Foundation documents that have any bearing on what’s in the new Mandate for Leadership. My hunch is that they would total more than 3,000 pages, transforming the shortest Mandate ever published into the longest one.

And if I were in a really foul mood–like if John Kerry were giving this week’s Inaugural Address–I might ask my intern to find out whatever happened to oil-leasing parcel No. 53.

As for me, I’m going to put the slimmed-down Mandate for Leadership on my bookshelf, within easy reach.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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