Washington was stunned by President Reagan's shift in his top command this weekend: national-security adviser Bill Clark to Jim Watt's interior secretary slot, leaving open the National Security Council helm. Clark aide Robert McFarlane appeared the early favorite for the NSC role, but cabinet conservatives quickly pushed United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick's name forward - and Mr. Reagan had another dispute on his hands.
Washington, at once proud and insecure in its closeness to power, can be easy to stun. And sure enough, ragged edges are left by the unanticipated shake-up. Environmentalists are outraged that a man of no environmental experience has been put in charge at Interior. At the NSC, naming Mr. McFarlane would signal a lower profile for that agency than if the more independent-minded Mrs. Kirkpatrick were chosen.
Mr. Reagan is trying to lower internal contention at three levels. White House policy struggles between Mr. Clark's NSC and the domestic policy team of Jim Baker and Michael Deaver had at times wearied each of the three men. The traditional rivalry between the NSC under Clark and the State Department under Secretary George Shultz was following the pattern of bitterness that plagued the Allen-Haig, Brzezinski-Vance, and other duos before them. And the distress of the Republicans' Washington leadership with Watt's impolitic statements had to be eased.
Further, Mr. Reagan was keeping his conservative followers content by appointing a Watt successor just as loyal to Reagan's environmental beliefs. And , finding it hard to send longtime workers out into the cold, he gave his close friend Judge Clark a responsible and demanding challenge within the Cabinet.
One could say, in tracing the tricky and tedious flow of power in the administration, that the domestic pragmatists Deaver and Baker, and the foreign policy pragmatist Shultz, would be stronger after a Watt-Clark-McFarlane succession. With Mrs. Kirkpatrick there could be more sparks.
The timing of the change matches the natural White House shift to a campaign posture on the domestic front, and the need to ease contention among allies and toward the Soviet Union through the coming critical months of arms talks. Today, the President's political aides are formally filing the official papers for his 1984 candidacy - although with a disclaimer that he is reserving a formal decision until later. The campaign is officially declared, if not its candidate. Through the hard-line Reagan foreign policy phase since last spring, with its militant, combative anticommunist themes in Central America and on the East-West front, Clark appeared ascendant - even though it was often Mr. Shultz's policies that were quietly followed. It may now be easier for Mr. Shultz to assert himself.
Still, too much can be read into changes of administration command. Mr. Reagan is the maker of his own policies. The men who work for him are more often the reflectors than the makers of policy. Observing their careers pulsate and decline in the Reagan stellar system is to witness what's going on in the highest circles. But Mr. Reagan's attitudes set the broad outlines of policy, and he determines the timing and degree of compromise. Those stay at his side whose instincts and skills are compatible with his own, and who do not cause so much static that they interfere with the policy message he wants to send.
Does the shake-up mean a more moderate Reagan in an election year? This is often a misleading question, since those who are hoping to find moderation and pragmatism, or fearing moderation's rise, seem to find signs of it first. Remember Al Haig's State Department ascendancy just before the Versailles summit - and his quick exit soon after?
Ronald Reagan's history, going back to his days as California governor, shows him to be a conservative with a very practical political sense. He would rather get part of a victory than none at all, his closest aides attest. So we can look for a slight shading toward the center.
But the bottom line for the President is this: To the extent the White House works with less friction and more unity in content and style, the better the President would be served in the Oval Office and a campaign.