Washington — Cabinet-watchers here are beginning to take on the distant, glazed expressions of those compulsively attentive China-watchers who monitor barely perceptible clues to power shifts in the Forbidden City.
Names are being propelled aloft over this rumor-swept capital -- only to be blown away on the shifting winds like so much skywriting.
For instance, who is to inherit the Pentagon?
Not so many days ago the star of Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D) of Washington seemed to be in the ascendant over the secretive, forbidding building. Then the bandwagon for Sen. John Tower (R) of Texas was reported rolling confidently toward it.
Now it appears that Senator Jackson is a much less likely choice for the job and that Senator Tower is out of the running altogether.
Instead, those whose chances of moving to the Pentagon seemed to have been dashed when first Jackson and then Tower moved to the fore, now seem to be very much in contention. Among those who could well become the nation's 15th secretary of defense are: former Texas Gov. John B. Connally; Gerald Ford's defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and his Navy secretary, J. William Middendorf; and Ronald Reagan's senior defense adviser, William Van Cleave, director of the defense and strategic studies program at the University of Southern California. Even Gen. Alexander M. Haig has not been entirely ruled out, even though he is regarded as a prime contender for the post of secretary of state.
Enthusiasm for Senator Jackson's appointment to the defense post appears to have waned among the President-elect's advisers, sources say, primarily because he is a Democrat and they feel the job should go, by right of conquest, to a Republican. In any case the senator is known to be more interested in moving to Foggy Bottom (the State Department) than to the Pentagon.
There is little doubt here that Senator Jackson's hawkish credentials would fit him well for the Pentagon post. "The Soviets should understand that we are prepared to live in a world without arms limitations if they persist in their pattern of aggression and subversion," he told an audience recently with his characteristic ebullience. His appointment as defense secretary would send an unmistakable message to Moscow, foreign policy experts agree. But while the President- elect's advisers applaud his hard-line stance toward the Soviet Union , they are wary of his liberal record on domestic issues.
Despite the fact that syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak reported last week that Ronald Reagan had selected John Tower to be his defense secretary, the Texas senator appears now to have been taken from the list.
He is thought to have wanted the job and may even have indulged in a little self-promotion. But his move from the Senate across the Potomac to the Pentagon presented a problem for conservative Republicans. If he had left the Senate, he would have foregone the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which he is about to inherit from Sen. John Stennis (D) of Mississippi.
The new chairman would then have been Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona. But he is due to become the chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence and if he vacated the position, Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R) of Maryland would have taken over -- to the dismay of many Senate Republicans who regard him as unduly liberal.
In addition, Senator Tower's departure from the Senate would require a special election in Texas. The state's Republican governor, William Clements, could appoint a temporary successor, but a special election is required within 90 days by state law, and Republicans are not absolutely sure they would win it. Understandably, they have no desire to reduce their 53-to-47 seat majority in the Senate or -- put another way-- to gain a defense secretary at the cost of a senator.
There has been speculation that Governor Clements might have appointed John Connally to Tower's vacated Senate seat, but Connally is thought to have his sights set resolutely on the Pentagon.
Senator Tower recently said that Ronald Reagan may add $3 billion to the $157 billion fiscal 1981 Pentagon budget when he takes office next January. Besides noting that Salt II would probably have to be renegotiated, he predicted that President Reagan would favor production of the neutron bomb, or enhanced radiation weapon, whose production was shelved by President Carter. The senator also said he would press for the construction of a manned penetrating bomber, "probably a B1 derivative."
Perhaps no secretary of defense will face such a plethora of problems as the 15th occupant of the office. Urgent decisions need to be taken with regard to the nation's conventional and strategic nuclear forces.
The man who makes those decisions might not exactly be a well-known public figure, according to transition sources. Contenders like J. William Middendorf, currently head of the Reagan transition's task force on intelligence, or Mr. Van Cleave could still come from behind to win, they say. The former Navy secretary is highly regarded by Reagan's defense advisers. "He's a first-rate guy," says a source. "And he's also the kind of fellow it doesn't look like you're paying a debt to."
And Van Cleave? "You can make a very strong case for that," adds the source.
"There's no question about his ability. Bill has fairly strong support on the hill. There are a number of senators and congressmen who would be very happy to have him as secretary of defense."
According to one informed source, Ronald Reagan will announce his cabinet appointments Dec. 5.