Since Ronald Reagan was first elected president in 1980, there has been much talk of a "Reagan Revolution," an enduring shift to the right in American politics. To consolidate that revolution, many of Reagan's strongest supporters have tried, with great perseverance and some success, to forge a new conservative policy-making elite to run the government in Washington.

By creating what White House communications director Patrick J. Buchanan has called a "conservative establishment" in the capital, conservatives believe that future Republican presidents -- even those not instinctively as devoted to their ideology as Reagan is -- will have to depend upon them to govern America.

To those right-wing activists who call themselves "movement conservatives," the Reagan Revolution means more than the attempt to create an electoral realignment. Just as important to them is the effort to give life to the conservative elite, the revolution's vanguard. If that elite grows and prospers, it could be this administration's lasting legacy in Washington.

Many Republicans call themselves conservatives, but only a portion of these call themselves "movement conservatives." The distinction is crucial. "This isn't merely a Republican regime, but a conservative regime," said T. Kenneth Cribb, counselor to the attorney general.

"How do you distinguish between loyalty to principle and loyalty to the source of advancement? The effect is not necessarily the same," said Morton Blackwell, a former presidential assistant and movement activist. When he worked in the Reagan White House, Blackwell said, "I was asked uncounted hundreds of times about personnel by conservatives in the administration: 'Is he one of us?' "

To be a mere Republican, they say, is insufficient; technical expertise for the appointed job is not a crucial criterion. Even loyalty to the president is not enough. One must demonstrate belief in the right doctrine and association with the right groups. Then, the participants in this ritual explained, one can assume the status of "movement conservative."

The credentials that carry the greatest weight among conservatives are affiliations with extra-party organizations ranging from the Heritage Foundation to the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, from the Leadership Institute to the American Conservative Union. "Having an endorsement from Heritage is important," Cribb said. "It's almost like shorthand. It cuts through the inquiries that would have to be made otherwise."

Publication in conservative journals enhances one's credentials, especially when an article is subsidized by conservative foundations such as the Olin Foundation. The traditional old-school tie -- having been an editor of the Harvard Crimson, for example, as was Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger -- is not the credential of choice, and may even brand the bearer as ideologically suspect. Better to have been an editor of the Harvard Salient, the conservative alternative journal.

Conservatives insist that what they are creating is no different from the "liberal establishment," their nemesis and model. To achieve their goals, they are trying to gather strength within the executive branch, a place they formerly considered alien and hostile, one appointment at a time, especially at the middle ranges. Linked by Ideology

Like leftists of an earlier epoch, movement conservatives can detect among themselves the slightest nuances of difference. For instance, they can instantly distinguish between a conservative, who has spent his political life within the movement's apparatus, and a neoconservative, a former liberal lately converted to the cause. They are bound by common ideological concerns, such as basing U.S. diplomacy on massive military power, but may be split over social issues such as abortion. Whatever their differences, however, they are even more keenly self-conscious about what sets them apart as an ideological movement from the stodgy regular partisans.

"Reagan knows that his own political success is the result of different currents of ideas that have been around for a generation, but only a generation," Cribb said. "It's unique that you have a president who's a self-conscious conservative, approving of a body of thought and seeking policy that proceeds from that thought."

The struggle for control of political appointments during the Reagan era reflects a conflict between the movement conservatives and traditional Republicans, epitomized by the two Senate Republican leaders during the Reagan era, Howard H. Baker Jr. and Robert J. Dole -- a conflict that dates back at least to the 1964 Barry Goldwater presidential campaign. Many conservative activists entered national politics during that early battle, including Reagan. His rise, unlike that of Richard M. Nixon or Gerald R. Ford, was not dependent upon his standing with party regulars. The conservative movement, thriving beyond the boundaries of traditional partisanship, sustained Reagan's career, just as he has sustained the movement. But he is larger than the sum of the movement's myriad parts; without him, conservatism would have lacked its political focus during the wilderness years, and conservatives would never have assumed power. Reagan's indispensability has allowed him to use the movement without becoming trapped by any of its factions.

But Reagan has not sought to revitalize the old politics of party by inspiring ideological activists to become regulars. "We're conservatives, not party people," Cribb said. "You can be a conservative and not a Republican." The movement, he emphasized, inhabits the party in order to advance the ideology: "Most conservatives are effective through the mechanism of the Republican Party." Like Reagan.

For at least a decade conservatives have positioned themselves to work within the GOP and the government, without becoming absorbed as regular Republicans. "Conservatives," wrote Buchanan in his 1975 book "Conservative Votes, Liberal Victories," "should begin to view themselves as temporary allies of the Republican Party, not foot soldiers in the ranks."

Yet even after defeating the traditional Republicans at GOP conventions ("It's no fun anymore without Nelson Rockefeller," lamented one prominent conservative), conservatives have been repeatedly overwhelmed inside the government by their rivals who, they frequently complain, are far more experienced and skilled at policy-making and bureaucratic infighting. One conservative involved in the administration's personnel decisions called them "these jerks trotting around with their Nixon and Ford credentials."

So even after conservatives had gained control of Republican conventions and helped to elect a president, they were not prepared in 1981 to act as a governing class. When "these jerks" were appointed to virtually all the important positions, the conservatives' rage at the regular Republicans erupted anew.

The conservatives' ambition to field a complete government, making it absolutely reliable on every issue, is far from being realized. Many of their successes eventually turned out to be failures. James G. Watt, Anne M. Burford and Richard V. Allen -- each "one of us" -- were short-lived phenomena, and the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Security Council, respectively, fell from their grasp. The obstacles to their ascendancy were spectacularly illustrated by two recently rejected nominations -- of Donald Devine to a second term at the Office of Personnel Management and of William Bradford Reynolds to be associate attorney general.

According to their colleagues in government, movement conservatives have sometimes failed to master their jobs. In the first-term White House, Edwin Meese and his assistant Cribb were famous, colleagues say, for their ineffectiveness. Questions of competence were raised about Watt, Burford and Allen. Believing and accomplishing haven't always gone hand-in-hand.

In spite of their shortcomings, conservatives inside the government are proud of their efforts to turn their movement into a Washington establishment. "What is it Marx said about the class for itself instead of the class in itself, the class conscious of itself? The people know each other wherever they happen to be," explained Danny J. Boggs, deputy secretary of energy, whose appointment came after strenuous lobbying by the Heritage Foundation. "It's very organic, as we used to say back in the '60s," he said. "It isn't created by grace from above. You expand outward into a network."

The Reagan years are not viewed by conservatives as the culmination of their desires, but as a first step. They look to the post-Reagan era, when they intend to help another Republican win the presidency and to try again to prevent traditional Republicans from assuming power by taking it themselves. Until then, they will not feel they have finally triumphed.

When discussing their strategies for this and future administrations, a word conservatives often use is "cadres." Conservatives have invested enormous energy in developing what one administration official calls "a transmission belt" to carry youthful "cadres" from college to the federal bureaucracy. "The Reagan years," said a prominent conservative, "are a time for young conservatives to get credentialed, so that when the next conservative administration comes along they'll be in place to move up."

Within the executive branch "self-conscious conservatives who understand the seriousness of the enterprise are less than a third of the 6,000 or so presidential appointments," Cribb calculated. "That's fine," he said, explaining that it is not essential for conservatives to hold every job. What's required is that conservatives command the top positions. "You need a lot of people managing the departments," he said. Yet only a few conservatives have risen to such lofty heights.

Cribb himself is one of the most influential members of the movement conservative network operating inside the federal bureaucracy, although he was disdained by many key officials in Reagan's first-term White House -- those whom the conservatives pejoratively called pragmatists. Behind his back they called him "Baby Bigot" for his ideological predilections. His influence has been a function of his service as Attorney General Meese's "eyes and ears within the movement" since the beginning of the administration, according to a former White House official. (The pragmatists around presidential aides James A. Baker III and Michael K. Deaver called Meese "Big Bigot.") Cribb's relation to Meese is roughly analogous to Meese's relation to Reagan: He is the true believer's true believer.

To control the executive branch "you'd need a lot fewer than a third of the appointments," says Anthony Dolan, a conservative who is the chief presidential speech writer. But he figures that conservatives currently hold fewer than that.

The building of the conservative network has not been simply a process of addition. At the same time conservatives are brought into the government, others are driven out. Early in the administration, the presidential personnel office sought a list from the Chamber of Commerce of career federal employes who lacked belief in supply-side economics, according to congressional sources. At the EPA, under Burford, a "hit list" of career and senior officials was drawn up, and in some EPA divisions most of the career professionals were driven out. Pockets of Concentration

Movement conservatives are located throughout the bureaucracy, but concentrated in pockets. Under the direction of White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan and his technocrats, conservatives oversee communications (Buchanan), speech writing (Dolan), public liaison (Linda Chavez) and policy development (John A. Svahn). All are potentially influential, but none commands the decisive heights on any issue.

The Justice Department under Meese is being transformed into a movement bastion. And the Energy Department under John S. Herrington (a protege of Lyn Nofziger, Reagan's longtime conservative political adviser) features conservatives such as Danny Boggs. At the Department of Education, leadership has been removed from the hands of stalwart Republican T.H. Bell and delivered to neoconservative William J. Bennett, a militant of the movement faction composed of lapsed Democrats.

Ideological coloration varies from department to department. "The State Department is the worst, the president's speech writing staff is the best," Blackwell said. Individual conservatives, however, can be found even in places that exhibit scant movement influence.

For example, Daniel Oliver, the former executive editor of National Review, the flagship conservative magazine edited by William F. Buckley Jr., is the general counsel in the Department of Agriculture. Oliver plays a role in binding together the movement by hosting dinner parties with political themes, attended by mostly anonymous but not inconsequential conservatives within the bureaucracy, like himself. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the former United Nations ambassador and a heroine of the movement, spoke at one occasion. Another evening was billed as "A Salute to Richard Perle," honoring the hard-line assistant secretary of defense.

From the point of view of the movement, the State Department is indeed "the worst." Even as key movement conservatives in the early days of the Reagan administration found perches at the Defense Department -- Fred C. Ikle, for example, was named undersecretary for policy -- they felt themselves excluded from State.

Among the first acts of Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., on the second day of Reagan's first term, was the abrupt dismissal of the president's foreign policy transition team, which had been run by conservatives. The dominant figure on the team was John Carbaugh, then a foreign policy aide to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the New Right champion. Carbaugh compiled "hit lists" in black loose-leaf notebooks of ambassadors and Foreign Service officers he considered "unreliable," according to a former administration official who served on the transition team. By terminating the team, Haig was "sending a message to the FSOs that they shouldn't worry about these people," this source said.

Helms, from his position on the Foreign Relations Committee, began delaying the confirmations of those he regarded as ideologically "unreliable." His aim was never mysterious: He would exchange these hostages for more movement appointments. Helms released Haig's appointees only after one of his own foreign policy aides, Richard T. McCormack, was named assistant secretary of state for economic affairs, according to a former administration official. (McCormack is now ambassador to the Organization of American States.)

In 1982, a self-selected gathering of influential conservatives convened in a private dining room in the rear of the Brasserie restaurant, across the street from the Heritage Foundation. Their agenda included remedying the movement's isolation from the State Department. Among those present was CIA Director William J. Casey, who had been present at the movement's creation: He was the lawyer who incorporated National Review back in 1955. James L. Buckley, the former New York senator, as committed to the cause as his brother William, soon to be appointed president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was there. So was Anthony Dolan, the president's rhetorician, who had been recommended for his job by William Buckley. (The idea for the meeting was Dolan's.)

Also present was Frank Shakespeare, chairman of RKO and chairman of Heritage, a quietly ubiquitous figure who turns up at virtually all the movement's most important functions, from weddings to seminars. Shakespeare, who was director of the U.S. Information Agency in the Nixon administration, has been "responsible for many, many conservatives getting jobs," according to a top administration official. (Shakespeare was named this year to serve as U.S. ambassador to Portugal -- a plum, if a small one.)

Fred Ikle, Scott Thompson, then associate director of USIA, and Edwin Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, joined the meeting, too. The assembled informally called themselves "The Group."

"Inevitably, the personnel problem at the State Department came up," Dolan said in an interview. After two years of Brasserie lunches, The Group disbanded, having failed to breach the State Department walls.

"The State Department," said Dolan, "will be the last citadel precisely because conservatives have been slow at gaining foreign policy credentials. Foreign Service bashing is silly. We need to learn from them."

Despite their will to rule, their assumption of it has inspired a deep ambivalence among conservatives. When Reagan was elected they were outsiders who wished to become insiders, without altering their perspective. They wanted to run Washington without becoming random parts in the machinery of diabolical big government. "Washington is evil," said Herb Berkowitz, public relations director of the Heritage Foundation. How could they remain pure at the center of corruption?

To many conservatives, the Reagan presidency was the beginning of time; previous administrations, including Republican ones, were prehistory. But within the administration the movement's path was not clear. The factional foe -- the old-style Republicans, so-called "pragmatists" -- appeared to be wresting the best jobs for themselves. Washington's "evil," its compromising nature, could be seen in the many appointments won early on in the Reagan administration by those not aligned with the movement. The battle that was waged for decades within the Republican Party for control of presidential nominations was now transposed, waged within the government.

Next: The excitement of 1981