Last week, The Politico broke the news that Jim DeMint, the president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, was likely to be removed from his post in a bloodless coup. On Tuesday, the foundation’s board of directors made it official: DeMint is out, to be replaced on an interim basis by Heritage founder Ed Feulner.
The internal affairs of some conservative organization may seem minor, in an age of major problems, but what happens within Heritage tends to eventually make it way out into the country at large. In 2017, the Heritage Foundation is probably the most powerful think tank in the country.
The conservative research and policy shop bet big on the Trump administration, and were rewarded with de facto oversight of Trump’s transition team between November and January. Virtually every middle-management position in the Trump administration has been filled by an ex-Heritage employee. At a Heritage event shortly after the election, John Yoo, co-author of the Bush administration Torture Memos, joked about the coziness between Heritage and the Trump administration:
“I’m surprised there are so many people here because I thought everyone at Heritage was working over at transition headquarters,” Yoo said during the panel about Trump’s win. “I asked the taxi cab driver to take me to Trump transition headquarters, and he dropped me off here, instead.”
The University of Pennsylvania recognized Heritage for the Best Advocacy Campaign of 2016 (“advocacy” being Beltway jargon for “lobbying”). If the infrastructure plan the Trump administration has been teasing ever sees the light of day, it will likely be a copy-paste job from this Heritage report put out shortly after the presidential election. The report’s ideas included approving the Keystone XL pipeline (check), killing net neutrality (double-check), privatizing Amtrak and the Air Traffic Organization, weakening labor laws by busting construction unions, and “eliminating greenhouse gas emissions analysis from the review process” for transportation and infrastructure projects. Good stuff!
So with everything seeming to be going swell for the Heritage Foundation, why the shake-up? The Atlantic’s Rosie Gray and McKay Coppins reported Tuesday that Heritage CEO Mike Needham was behind the power play, and appealed “to both pro- and anti-Trump elements to accomplish it.”:
To the Trump-averse elements on the board, Needham has pointed to DeMint’s growing coziness with the new administration as evidence that the think tank, a beacon of movement conservatism, needs a new steward. At the same time, Needham has been telling pro-Trump board members like Rebekah Mercer that Heritage needs a leader who will follow the president’s lead—even going so far as to float White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, a key Mercer ally, as a potential future president, according to one source.
There have been a long-simmering tensions between the Heritage Foundation—its buttoned-up policy shop—and Heritage Action, the group’s more activist political arm, which funds insurgent campaigns and scores Republican members of Congress based on “key votes.” While the Heritage Foundation’s work is bound, somewhat, by intellectual rigor, Heritage Action runs on pure, uncut ideology. Therein lies the rub between DeMint and Needham.
Now, it seems that DeMint has been deemed too “bombastic” to deal with the Trump administration (which is ironic, considering, you know, the people that make up the Trump administration). The right-wing internecine bickering has been tense and will surely remain so. DeMint loyalists at Heritage having been turning in their resignations, and 48 Congressional Republicans signed a letter in solidarity with DeMint:
On Monday, James Wallner, Heritage’s group vice president for research, was placed on administrative leave without explanation. Shortly before being put on leave, Wallner went on a tweetstorm in support of DeMint, and urged the think tank’s leadership not to bow to “undue pressure to politicize its findings.”
(The Needham-DeMint feud calls to mind the Great FreedomWorks Coup of 2012, when Matt Kibbe, the group’s president, pushed out then-chairman Dick Armey. In retaliation, Armey marched into the Tea Party organization’s office with a handgun-wielding aide in a gambit to “seize control of the group and expel Armey’s enemies.” No one was hurt, and Armey ended up settling with Kibbe for an $8 million golden parachute.)
Republicans in office owe many thanks to groups like Heritage and FreedomWorks for mainstreaming conservative ideas, making them more palatable for public consumption with the help of conferences, white papers, PR campaigns, and all the other tricks of the “advocacy” trade. In a way, Trump was the perfect candidate for Heritage and groups like it to complete their mission. Completely void of ideology, beholden only to news ratings and vanity, he was an empty vessel into which Heritage could pour its entire agenda.
It’s enough to make you want to ask these guys if they remember that they just won. But winning may be the problem. The simple yet unsatisfying explanation for the Heritage crack-up seems to be vanity and jockeying for power. Such is life in Washington.
All of the on-background squabbling over who did or did not attempt to “politicize” Heritage’s important work is, frankly, laughable. The Heritage Foundation’s entire reason for existing—indeed, the purpose of any ideological think tank—is to publish politically advantageous research.
No matter who’s at the helm of the Heritage Foundation—whether it’s DeMint, Feulner, Needham or even Bannon—this will remain the think tank known for such innovative policy ideas as “public school teachers’ salaries should be pegged to their students’ standardized test performance” and “poor people who own refrigerators don’t really count as poor.” No matter how much spleen the pro- and anti-DeMint factions vent to the press, Heritage will continue to work to move the country ever-rightward, just as it always has.
The real joke is how many people inside Heritage don’t seem to understand the game they’re playing: you can’t “politicize” the work of an organization that exists solely to lend a veneer of respectability to the preferred economic agenda of plutocrats. Heritage’s core founding myth—mainly, that supply-side economics works, or at least can be plausibly claimed to work, for regular Americans—is just that, a myth. Much like the house in Poltergeist, Heritage’s posh Massachusetts Avenue offices are built on a graveyard of toxic ideology. They’re not interested in holding themselves to a more rigorous standard of policy research. They’re only moving the headstones.