Strange Bedfellow

Happy Birthday, Heritage Foundation

At 25, the right-wing agitprop machine has a lot to celebrate.

Next month marks the 25th anniversary of the Heritage Foundation, the biggest and best known of the conservative think tanks. The festivities began a few weeks ago with a black-tie gala for 1,700, at which Margaret Thatcher spoke on the topic of “Courage.” (“Ronald Reagan and I refused to accept the decline of the West as our ineluctable destiny,” Thatcher declared, displaying her usual modesty and sense of fun.) The revelries are to continue for two full years, with a traveling lecture series featuring such speakers as William Bennett, who will orate in Oklahoma City about “Truth,” and Clarence Thomas, who will address the people of Palm Beach on the subject of “Character.” Another vast dinner in Washington will cap the series and Heritage’s $85-million fund-raising drive. To commemorate the occasion, the foundation also has sponsored a gushing account of its first quarter-century, The Power of Ideas, by Lee Edwards. The book’s title is incongruous, since the whole point of the Heritage Foundation is that ideas alone have little power without a big push.

By all measures, Heritage has much to celebrate. From across the political spectrum, opinion appears to be unanimous that the organization has been singularly effective in accomplishing its mission of dragging American politics to the right. Since the 1980 release of its Mandate for Leadership, a detailed program for the incoming Reagan administration that the Reagan administration actually took seriously, Heritage has played a central role in setting not only the broad conservative agenda but also the details of legislation. Edwards’ book delights in quoting envious encomia from the enemy camp. Michael Shuman of the left-wing Institute for Policy Studies credits Heritage with a bigger influence on American politics and policy than any other conservative institution. Will Marshall, president of the New Democratic Progressive Policy Institute, says Heritage “wrote the book on how to market and popularize political ideas.” The Nation, among others, keeps up a steady drumbeat on this theme: Why doesn’t the left have an advocacy organization as influential as Heritage? Well, why not?

The most obvious explanation is money. A right-wing “advocacy tank” like Heritage is able to raise much more than its liberal counterparts for the same reason that Republican candidates out-raise Democratic ones. Those who have a lot to give–corporations and rich individuals–give primarily in their own self-interest. (And, unlike political candidates, organizations like Heritage can accept donations directly from corporate treasuries.) Self-interested money goes to organizations that promote lower taxes and less regulation, two topics on which Heritage is absolutely unflinching. To be sure, there is disinterested conservative money, and self-interested liberal money, such as the union funds that go to the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that opposes free-trade agreements. But such exceptions don’t change the rule. The Brookings Institution, often cast as Heritage’s liberal counterpart, could never dream of raising $85 million in two years.

I n fact, Brookings isn’t really Heritage’s liberal counterpart. Though it has historically exhibited a modest liberal slant–diminished in recent years–Brookings thinks of itself as a scholarly institution devoted to objective research into public policy. It would never spend its money in an explicit effort to harm its political foes, because it does not conceive of itself as taking a side and does not view politics as ideological warfare. This is even more true of the big “liberal” foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller, and MacArthur. New Right conservatives, on the other hand, as exemplified by Heritage, are quite explicit about viewing politics as combat. In the words of Heritage’s president, Ed Feulner, “We conduct warfare in the battle of ideas.” Washington exerts a strong moderating influence, and Feulner has been attacked in recent years for going “establishment”–wanting to be prestigious and respected like Brookings instead of being powerful and feared. This is the same fault Heritage attacked the American Enterprise Institute for in the 1970s. But even if it has settled down a bit, Heritage still retains an insurgent mindset. It views itself as the center of a radical movement, even if it has become part of an entrenched Washington establishment.

Because of its combat mentality, Heritage has never been a place with very high standards. Like other conservative outfits, it loves the lingo of academic life. Its hallways are cluttered with endowed chairs, visiting fellows, and distinguished scholars. The conceit here is that as a PC Dark Age has overcome the universities, conservative think tanks have become the refuge of thought and learning. At Heritage in particular, this is a laugh. AEI and the Manhattan Institute frequently produce stimulating books and studies and occasionally arrive at unexpected positions. Even the more dogmatic Cato Institute has cultivated a reputation for rigorous research and analysis from a libertarian point of view. Heritage, however, is essentially a propaganda mill. There are exceptions. Stuart Butler, a Brit who runs the domestic-policy shop, has done solid work on enterprise zones, and took pains to develop a conscientious conservative alternative to the Clinton health-care plan. But on the whole, Heritage is focused on selling and promoting its views rather than on developing thoughtful or nuanced ones. It spends nearly half its $29 million annual budget on marketing. It prides itself on producing reports with concision and speed. According to Edwards, one recent innovation is the colored index card summarizing a conservative position in “short, punchy sentences.” According to Heritage’s “Vice-president for information marketing,” these cards have been “wildly successful” with Republicans in Congress.

Its ethical standards are as lax as its intellectual ones. Heritage is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, which means it is not supposed to lobby Congress. Edwards notes that a disclaimer appears at the foot of all its publications. “Nothing written here is to be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress.” This is an evident absurdity. Heritage exists to aid and hinder legislation before Congress and often boasts about doing so. Edwards quotes the Heritage disclaimer immediately after he finishes explaining that Feulner and Paul Weyrich founded Heritage because in the early 1970s, AEI was taking its tax-exempt status too seriously. Having been investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, AEI didn’t focus on getting its reports into the hands of members of Congress before the relevant votes. For whatever reason, liberal groups tend to be more punctilious about this. Many are split between two organizations, a 501(c)(3), to which contributions are tax deductible, and a 501(c)(4), which is simply not taxable itself, and which has more latitude in lobbying. This reduces the amount liberal groups can raise, enhancing their natural disadvantage.

At bottom, the big liberal think tanks remain temperamentally different from the likes of Heritage. They have their vices, to be sure. They can be ponderous, conventional, and gimmicky–and miraculously, sometimes all three at once. But you can’t see the Twentieth-Century Fund feeding policy popcorn to Democrats in Congress. They’d be insulted by the idea. It’s hard to imagine the Progressive Policy Institute naming a “Vice-president for information marketing.” You can’t conceive of Brookings putting out a volume of self-serving bluster like the Edwards book. In fact, Brookings did commission a history for its 75th anniversary in 1991. It was serious, critical, and self-questioning in a way that is totally alien to the Heritage Foundation. Though Democrats have become better in recent years at suppressing their differences in favor of their common interests, they still shy away instinctually from a united front of the kind that Heritage is.

Liberals say they want to learn from the most successful organization on the right. But in reality, they’re more comfortable, and probably better off, wishing the Heritage Foundation a happy birthday and admiring it from afar.