What Is Going On at the Heritage Foundation?

And why you should care.

Former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint
Recently departed Heritage Foundation CEO and former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint at the Iowa Freedom Summit in Des Moines, Jan. 24, 2015.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Most of the time, a change of leadership at a nonprofit research organization wouldn’t merit saturation coverage in the national news media. Not so with the Heritage Foundation, the mammoth conservative think tank that in recent days has been covered about as assiduously as the crisis on the Korean peninsula, with major stories in Politico, the Atlantic, and the Washington Examiner just this week. Why all the attention?

The simple answer is that Heritage has long been seen as the High Church of Movement Conservatism, with a staggeringly large annual budget in the neighborhood of $80 million. When Ronald Reagan was being dismissed as an amiable dunce, Heritage assembled Mandate for Leadership, a detailed roadmap for his presidency that was realized in ways large and small. Heritage scholars played a major role in causes as varied as promoting the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Reagan-era effort to shield the U.S. and its allies from Soviet missiles with the help of nuclear X-ray lasers, and imposing time limits and work requirements on welfare recipients, a centerpiece of the 1996 welfare reform legislation. Rather awkwardly, it was a Heritage scholar who first popularized the idea of using an individual mandate to make insurance coverage universal, an idea that Mitt Romney famously ran with as governor of Massachusetts. For many years conservatives could safely assume that if an idea came from Heritage, it was kosher.

Heritage has since fallen from its previous heights, but it has exerted considerable influence in the Trump White House. While other conservative think tanks kept their distance from Trump’s presidential campaign, Heritage under president and CEO Jim DeMint made its peace with the man and his movement early on, rightly sensing that its vast donor base would be fully on board. (Instead of scrambling to make amends in the wake of Trump’s unexpected victory, the Heritage Foundation’s senior staff already had a seat at the table.) Covering the goings on at Heritage is important because, as much as any institution on the right, it has been serving as the president’s brain trust. Now, even as it tries to implant ideas in Trump’s noggin, Heritage is tinkering with its own cerebrum.

In the very likely event you haven’t been paying attention, Jim DeMint, the former Republican senator from South Carolina, has been booted from his leadership role by Heritage’s board of trustees. There’s been a great deal of sniping back and forth from Heritage insiders about who exactly is behind the coup and what exactly motivated it. The consensus is that DeMint was undone by an alliance between Ed Feulner, DeMint’s long-serving predecessor who will now act as interim president, and Mike Needham, Feulner’s protégé and the head of the group’s activist wing Heritage Action for America. Needham haters have been talking up the former Rudy Giuliani aide’s ambition and his supposed duplicity, while DeMint haters have accused the South Carolinian of being an absentee landlord who’s driven too many talented thinkers out of the organization.

What’s especially strange about this tug of war is that DeMint and Needham are so similar in their worldviews. Both see the need for a conservative shadow party that can stiffen the spines of Republican lawmakers, and both are not just willing but eager to defy the Republican leadership on matters of conservative principle. More specifically, both men are zealous believers in cutting taxes and shrinking the federal government. As a Senate candidate in 2004, DeMint made an argument that later became a central part of the Tea Party credo: “How can a nation survive when a majority of its citizens, now dependent on government services, no longer have the incentive to restrain the growth of government?” Needham thinks along similarly apocalyptic lines.

So why have they come to blows? The Needhamites believe that Heritage Action should rail against RINOs and rally hard-right Republicans in the legislative fights of the day while the Heritage Foundation does the important work of devising policy ideas. By way of example, the Heritage Foundation should have come up with a smart, politically appealing Obamacare replacement proposal that conservatives could get behind. Heritage Action would then reward Republicans who got behind it while punishing those who failed to do so. But by that standard, the Heritage Foundation with DeMint at the helm just hasn’t been doing its job. Under DeMint’s leadership, Heritage’s reputation as a font of ideas really has suffered, as he and his top lieutenants have prioritized message discipline over creative intellectual work. The result is that Heritage Action often wastes its energy on small-bore issues, like its jihad against the Export-Import Bank, while having precious little to say to vulnerable Republicans about how they can improve health care.

Team DeMint, meanwhile, emphasized the Heritage Foundation’s role as a messaging and communications shop, which meant that Heritage Action was at best duplicative and at worst counterproductive. It’s no secret that Heritage Action has alienated many of the right-wing Republicans it exists to corral, many of whom are friends and allies of DeMint. Instead of seeing Heritage Action as an ally, many Tea Party conservatives in the House and Senate have come to resent it. So while Needham has emerged as a leading conservative media personality, with regular appearances on Fox News, there’s a decent case to be made that Heritage Action isn’t succeeding in its core mission of galvanizing the Republican right into effective action.

Can Heritage be saved? One of the loopier rumors that’s cropped up in the past few days is that Steve Bannon might take the helm, with an eye toward transforming the group into a vehicle for his brand of populist nationalism. This is one rumor we can safely dismiss. Yes, Rebekah Mercer, daughter of the eccentric hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer and Bannon’s greatest champion and patron, is on the Heritage Foundation’s board of directors. But it’s hard to see Feulner handing over the reins to Bannon, especially when he’d much rather hand them over to his ally Needham a few years hence.

Nevertheless, there is some logic in delivering Heritage to someone who’d be willing and able to transform it into a more explicitly populist and nationalist think tank. Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump tossed around a bunch of ideas that are anathema to small-government conservatives like DeMint and Needham, promising to break up the big banks, craft trade policies that served American workers first, protect entitlement spending, and prioritize middle-class tax cuts over giveaways to the rich. Once in office, however, the Trump administration has largely abandoned these commitments. Apart from embracing a more restrictionist immigration policy, the president really hasn’t delivered on much of anything. Part of this is a reflection of the fact that he’s staffed the executive branch with so many folks from think tanks, places that either oppose these sorts of objectives or haven’t thought about them deeply. This includes the Heritage people in the Trump administration—though DeMint embraced Trump early on, he and his staff never quite cottoned to the populism Trump advocated on the stump.

Doesn’t it make sense that there would be at least one research organization on the right that would try to give Trumpism shape and not just steer the president and his allies toward a small-government orthodoxy he so explicitly rejected on the campaign trail? Moving in this direction would be controversial. But if the alternative is a Heritage Foundation that remains devoted to DeMint-style arguments that poor people don’t pay enough in federal taxes, it might be worth a shot.