I have previously commented on a National Journal report the turn within the Heritage Foundation since Jim DeMint replaced Ed Feulner, as the Heritage Act lobbying wing has seemed to surpass the Heritage Foundation think tank wing. The National Journal observed that the “wall” between the two “has come crashing down.”
Now, The New Republic has joined this fray, with a report titled, “A 31-Year-Old Is Tearing Apart the Heritage Foundation,”
Increasingly in Washington, “Heritage” has come to denote not the foundation or the think tank, but Heritage Action, Needham’s sharp-elbowed operation. Instead of fleshing out conservative positions, says one Republican Senate staffer, “now they’re running around trying to get Republicans voted out of office. It’s a purely ideological crusade that’s utterly divorced from the research side.” (“If Nancy Pelosi could write an anonymous check to Heritage Action,” adds the House aide bitterly, “she would.”)
As a result, the Heritage Foundation has gone from august conservative think tank revered by Washington’s Republicans to the party’s loathed ideological commissar. “It’s sad, actually,” says one Republican strategist. “Everybody forgets that Heritage was always considered the gold standard of conservative, forward-looking thought. The emergence of Heritage Action has really transformed the brand into a more political organization.”
Needham’s strategy has also sparked a war inside the halls of the foundation itself, where many feel duped by the stealthy yet brutal way the Heritage Action takeover went down. Some now wonder whether the foundation can ever recover its reputation as a font of ideas. “I don’t think any thoughtful person is going to take the Heritage Foundation very seriously, because they’ll say, How is this any different from the Tea Party?” says Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman and a founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation. Looking at the organization he helped to create, Edwards finds it unrecognizable. “Going out there and trying to defeat people who don’t agree with us never occurred to us,” said Edwards. “It’s alien.”
The article also does a decent job exploring how Ed Feulner maintained that wall.
This, the story goes, was why Feulner and Weyrich decided to found Heritage: to influence the vote. It was also why their model focused on short backgrounders, rather than long reports, so that congressmen could get a quick opinion on their way to the floor. Unlike AEI or Brookings across town, Heritage set up shop on the Hill, down the street from Congress. And unlike AEI and Brookings, Heritage was not so much about exploring ideas as it was about pushing a political line.
Still, Feulner, a reserved and bookish type, helped preserve at least a patina of learning and bipartisan cooperation for the sake of good policy. Heritage was instrumental, for instance, in shaping Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, advocating for ideas such as work requirements. Obamacare’s individual mandate was a concept born at Heritage. And despite an ongoing debate about whether the organization should be tougher about how it made its policy recommendations to lawmakers, most Heritage policy analysts and management, including Feulner, tried to keep a clean distinction between their work and outright lobbying. Whenever the idea of creating a political action arm came up, says a longtime Heritage scholar, “the answer was always no, because it would undermine the status of our research.”
I should note, as I discuss in Unprecedented, that Heritage was essential to laying the legal groundwork to the constitutional challenge to Obamacare.
Though the wall began crumbling after the 2008 election, as Heritage sought to match up against Think Progress.
Feulner acquiesced with the understanding that the new lobbying outfit would be subservient to the greater Heritage Foundation.
And so, less than a year after Saunders’s election, the word came down at Heritage that the think tank was about to sprout a political arm called Heritage Action. “A small number of people at the top decided it and then presented it to management as a fait accompli,” says one former Heritage staffer. “From day one,” says the former Heritage scholar, “there was massive consternation and concern.” Many were against it, fearing it would tarnish Heritage’s reputation for scholarship. Others had more brass-tacks concerns: How would authority be delegated and how would the money be mingled? The organizational details, say insiders, were left vague. “We had some time to make our concerns known,” says the former staffer. “But it was a matter of days, not months.”
On April 12, 2010, Feulner announced the birth of Heritage Action in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. “The Heritage Foundation has been called ‘the beast’ of all think tanks,” the op-ed declared. “Last week our beast added new fangs with the creation of a new advocacy organization.”
But soon Needham and Chapman, who were placed in charge of Heritage Action, started exceeding their bounds.
Housing Needham and Chapman outside the mothership proved a fateful decision. Heritage Action had been sold to the foundation staff as the mere executioner of the policy that Heritage analysts cooked up. Increasingly, however, the old guard at Heritage found that this was not the case. The failure to clearly delineate money, authority, and organization among Heritage and Heritage Action “gave Mike and Tim a lot of running room to wreak havoc,” says the scholar. They were approaching Congress on their own, fund-raising on their own, without any Heritage supervision but using the Heritage brand. According to the former Heritage staffer, “There was a growing sense among policy folks that there was a rogue group using the Heritage name and doing things they didn’t know about.”
This caused a massive backlash at Heritage headquarters. The former veteran Heritage staffer recalled “lots of angry meetings, and not just in the policy shop, but even in the marketing department.” Another staffer remembered screaming fights in the building.
In management meetings, it was usually Needham, representing Heritage Action, against much of the room, and he often won out because he came to the table with a national army at his back. Neither he nor Chapman seemed to suffer pangs of self-consciousness about their youth and inexperience compared with the patriarchs sitting around them. “I was always struck at how they felt absolutely no intellectual modesty,” says the former veteran Heritage staffer. “They felt totally on par with people who had spent thirty years in the field and had Ph.D.s.” The staffer recalls watching Needham interact with Feulner in large meetings. “It was just bizarre,” the staffer says. “There was not a lot of respect coming from Mike to Ed, and Ed kind of laughed it off. I always thought he crossed a lot of lines.”
By the time Feulner retired in April 2013, there was an eerie feeling at Heritage, described by several former high-level staffers, of waking up to realize that all the blank spots in the relationship between the foundation and Heritage Action had already been filled in by Needham and Chapman. Heritage had completely changed. “People in the building kind of woke up and realized, Wow! We were a totally different organization,” says the former veteran staffer. “How did that happen?”
During November of 2012, prior to the appointment of DeMint, I spoke with a scholar at Heritage who suggested that things would soon take a turn for the worse, and he was getting out of there. This report confirms what I heard:
In the run-up to Feulner’s retirement, the board had considered a number of candidates that would have provided some modicum of continuity with Feulner’s tenure. But once DeMint had gotten wind of the job, he began to lobby the board, making his desire for a wider political platform known. There had been resistance at Heritage to hiring a former member of Congress rather than a Ph.D., but Saunders, the chairman of the board, predictably liked the idea of a more activist president. When DeMint was finally hired, Heritage veterans understood that they had lost their last chance to stop the Heritage Action china-busting revolution. “At the end of the day, that was really an affirmative decision to double down on the political model,” says the scholar. “The battle was over.”
With DeMint’s arrival, the political team had to approve of all research reports. Papers were spiked on NSA wiretapping and the ACA:
There is now a political check on all Heritage research papers to make sure they conform to the political and tactical line before they go out the door. Corrigan killed one such paper, defending the law authorizing National Security Agency practices as constitutional, only to have the Brookings Institution, a relatively liberal think tank, publish it. Corrigan also put the kibosh on several policy papers on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, including one by Heritage scholar Edmund Haislmaier about what states should do on Medicare expansion. Because the official Heritage strategy was now to defund Obamacare, any paper acceding to a reality in which the law existed was verboten. The scandalous Heritage report on immigration, co-authored by a scholar who had once claimed that Hispanic immigrants have lower IQs than whites, was also the product of DeMint’s approach: Policy analysts were shut out of the discussion, and the paper, which was written to conform with DeMint’s anti-immigration stance, did not go through the standard vetting procedure.
Now, there is a “brain drain” from Heritage Foundation:
As a result of these changes, defections from Heritage, which began as a trickle about a year and a half into Needham’s tenure, have accelerated under DeMint. Heritage Foundation has lost Michael Franc, who ran its government relations division for nearly 17 years; its main number cruncher, William Beach; and the head of the American studies silo, Matthew Spalding. Gone too are J. D. Foster, who studied the finances of entitlement programs; Asia scholar Derek Scissors; and star national security wonk Mackenzie Eaglen. “You can certainly map the brain drain that’s occurred,” says a Republican Senate staffer. “What you have now is Heritage Action with a research division.”
Add Todd Gaziano, who was instrumental in the legal studies department of ramping up the challenge to Obamacare.
This backstory makes the fight over the Cato Institute with the Koch Brothers that much more critical for ideas.