The quadrennial changing of the guard is taking place in Washington. With good grace toward the Republican victors if not wholly among themselves, the Democrats are withdrawing to rethink, regroup. And the Republicans are pressing ahead with the full flush of new adventure -- focusing on key White House staff and Cabinet members.
President Carter's men are cooperating with Governor Reagan's cadre of transition aides, deferring decisions that might have to be remade by the new administration. The President himself has apparently already cast himself ahead in the role of a reflective, writing former chief of state operating from Plains , Ga. He seems to have little interest in the role of chief of the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Congress, in killing a Senate tax-cut proposal Nov. 12, appears also to be pushing the next decision period ahead into 1981 and the new session split Capitol Hill leadership -- Republican in the Senate, Democratic in the House.
The Democrats realize their party faces a vast rebuilding effort, starting with a likely changing of their own guard. Party chairman John White, whose fortunes seem linked to the 1980 democratic debacle, says an orderly, deliberative regrouping is needed.
The Democratic Party repair work will begin with an early December session of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee to plan an agenda for a full-scale, 363-member DNC gathering in February that will either reelect Mr. White or choose a new party chief.
To help Democrats revive a sense of party identity, the Democrats plan a series of state party assemblies next year to redefine policies and programs.
Within Democratic ranks, jockeying has already begun for 1984 campaign ascendancy. Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan of New York, a more or less "centrist" Democrat, is trying to outflank Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's liberal troops, while a third Northeast Irish politician, Gov. Hugh Carey of New York, also appears to be readying himself for a 1984 run.
But most Democrats see more bread-and-butter tasks ahead for the party. A direct-mail fund-raising program must be launched. The party needs to catch up with the Republicans also in full-scale, nationwide opinion polling to understand the electorate better, Democratic strategists say. Young Democrats are weighing the launching of new publications to stimulate a forward-looking point of view.
Meanwhile, for the Republicans in Washington, the transition challenge is to "make haste slowly" -- to maintain discipline as they take control of the enormous federal bureaucracy they lampooned during the campaign.
President-elect Reagan's working circle of advisers and chieftains must be expanded to include potentially powerful Cabinet and agency officers, his closest advisers say. The California's management blueprint calls for a super-Cabinet or executive committee, with the vice-president; secretaries of state, defense, and treasury; the attorney general, and a White House chief of staff and special presidential assistant as working members.
The danger, some Reagan people say, is that super-Cabinet members -- if they included personalities like William Simon as economic chief, John Connally, Alexander Haig or George Shultz as secretary of state or defense -- could seize larger chunks of influence than President Reagan, known as a willing delegator, should give them.
This possibility has made designing the role of chief of staff or chief liason with the president crucial. The two strongest candidates are Texas lawyer James Baker, who ran President Ford's 1976 campaign and George Bush's 1980 run before finding a niche in the Reagan enclave, and Edwin Meese, Reagan's chief of staff from his California governorship days.
The Reagan inner circle has been trying to design a dual role for aides Baker and Meese, who worked effectively in operations and strategy roles through the presidential campaign. One plan calls for Baker as "operations" chief of staff and Meese as high-ranking special assistant to the president, and possibly a chief spokesman. (Meese also is mentioned as a candidate for attorney general.)
A proposed four-man team of press spokesmen, replacing the one-man white House press secretary role such as played by Jody Powell for Mr. Carter, would be unyieldy, longtime Washington media hands say. Either Meese or Baker, or both, could perform ably in that capacity, they add.