SYNOPSIS: Bush's cabinet appointees will say loads about his intentions.

Even cynics were a bit startled by the revelation that Justice Clarence Thomas's wife has been employed by the Heritage Foundation to gather résumés for potential appointments in the next administration. But let me leave ethical issues to the experts and focus on a different question suggested by the story: To what extent will a Bush administration, if that's what we're about to have, be staffed by people from Heritage and its sister institutions? Are we about to enter an era of government by professional ideologues?

Heritage describes itself as a think tank, a term originally applied to nonpolitical institutions like the RAND Corporation. Whether it is really appropriate for organizations like Heritage depends on what you mean by the word "think." Most of Washington's so-called think tanks don't have to ponder the issues — they already know the answers. The Heritage mission statement makes no bones about it: the institution's purpose is to "formulate and promote conservative public policies." Can you imagine any circumstances under which Heritage researchers might recommend a tax increase, or a new environmental regulation? I didn't think so.

Since the policy recommendations that come out of Heritage, or the Cato Institute, or even the American Enterprise Institute are so predictable, what purpose do these organizations serve? Good question.

The important think tanks are all very much institutions of the right. Jon Corzine notwithstanding, left- wing multimillionaires are not exactly the norm. So liberal think tanks don't have anything like the resources or the influence of their right-wing counterparts. Some might cite the Brookings Institution as an exception — but Brookings isn't liberal the way the conservative think tanks are conservative. Put it this way: Even A.E.I., the most moderate of the big right-wing think tanks, lists Newt Gingrich among its "scholars."

The glory years of the think tanks were the 1970's, when they provided an alternative to what was perceived — with some justice — as the liberal bias of academia. The think tanks were places where neoconservative intellectuals could think the unthinkable and say the unsayable. They provided a new element in the national dialogue, to such an extent that Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously declared that "the Republicans have become the party of ideas." And of course the think tanks provided the intellectual shock troops for the Reagan revolution.

But that was a long time ago. Neoconservative ideas are no longer radical; they have become trite. And the intellectual need for an alternative set of institutions is itself far less apparent than it was. In the field I know best, economics, academia no longer has a recognizable liberal bias; free markets command great respect, and many of the best-known professors are also committed Republicans. Nonetheless, the think tanks are bigger and better financed than ever. What is their purpose?

Mainly they have become waiting rooms for the conservative nomen klatura — a class of intellectuals among whom talent is much less important than political reliability. The people whose résumés Mrs. Thomas has been helping put together are professional ideologues, who currently earn a living by repeating conservative slogans but hope that they will soon be under secretaries and assistant secretaries.

This hope doesn't have to be fulfilled. While a few Friends of Bill got special consideration in the early years, the Clinton administration was in general staffed by people notable more for their ability than their ideological fervor. In the economic area, the administration attracted some very impressive talent, including at least one likely Nobel laureate (Joseph Stiglitz, chief economic adviser from 1995 to '97).

George W. Bush could do the same — staffing his administration with able Republicans from the business and academic worlds. But will he?

If Mr. Bush becomes president, the thing to watch is whom he appoints — not so much to the glamorous cabinet positions as the less visible but crucial second and third tiers. If those slots are filled by people from Wall Street and Stanford, people who have made their reputations independent of their politics, good. If they are filled from Heritage and Cato and A.E.I., forget the rhetoric — he's a divider, not a uniter.

Originally published in The New York Times, 12.13.00