May 4, 2017


How to Make the Heritage Foundation Great Again : Jim DeMint's ouster could be just what conservatism needs. (TEVI TROY May 03, 2017, Politico)

[D]eMint had signaled a directional shift from the moment he was hired. As a Senator, DeMint had clashed constantly with his own party's leadership, challenging them for not being conservative enough. His most famous uttering was his line about preferring a Senate with 30 hardcore conservatives than 60 moderates. His approach, abhorred by Senate GOP leaders, seemed in line with the new Heritage Action political model of challenging Senators from the right if they failed to pass conservative muster. The message of his hiring wasn't lost on Republican politicians. Before DeMint, GOP elected officials and staffers once looked to Heritage to see what the standard conservative position was, and to find a creditable defense for that position. Now they're more likely to look to what Heritage Action is saying to avoid getting "primaried" on their right flanks.

The move to a more politicized Heritage affected the foundation's scholars as well, as a number of well-known and longstanding thinkers, including Stuart Butler, Matt Spalding, and Bill Beach, left in recent years. These developments, which began with the creation of Heritage Action and accelerated under DeMint's leadership, have altered Heritage's reputation. As Daniel Drezner writes in his new book The Ideas Industry, "liberal intellectuals had derided Heritage's intellectual quality in the past. What changed under DeMint was that conservatives began doing so as well."

Heritage is now undergoing a search process to identify a new leader. It is unclear exactly what the board will be looking for to fill this important post, but DeMint's departure gives Heritage a chance to reclaim its original mandate, and start charting conservative ideas for a new generation. At a time when conservatism is in the midst of an identity crisis - and sorely needs a powerful convening institution - a Heritage that seeks once again to be a unifying rather than dividing force on the right could be a powerful entity. This period in which Republicans control the White House and both Houses of Congress provides a big opportunity for a resurgent Heritage to help shape the policy agenda in Washington.

The search for a new leader also gives Heritage a chance to correct some of the deviations Heritage has made from its original model, and re-establish itself as the idea factory that the conservative movement needs. To succeed in such an effort, Heritage needs a leader with a scholarly background. DeMint's predecessor Ed Feulner - who is retaking the reins in an acting capacity while the search for a replacement takes place - has a Ph.D. Such a credential is helpful but not necessary. What is required is a background as an author of serious work and an interest in taking ideas seriously. Politicians can sometimes fit this bill--the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan had impeccable academic credentials, and so does sitting Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse--but being an elected official in and of itself does not serve as a qualification.

Another essential trait is the ability to bring conservatives together. For decades, Heritage's great strength was the fact that people in politics and in the media looked to it for the consensus conservative view. Heritage was a litmus test of conservatism, in a good way. It served as an indicator of where mainstream conservatism was going on a particular issue. In these days of conservative divisions, Heritage might have the chance to play this role again, seeking out and even establishing areas of conservative agreement. This may seem hard given the many divisions within conservatism today, but it is important work, and it is incumbent on conservatism's intellectual infrastructure, its policy journals and think tanks alike, to engage in that effort.

Finally, the new leader faces a crucial challenge of building a wall between Heritage the think tank and Heritage Action the political organization. The scholars and their research should set the agenda. If there must be a political arm, it should aim to implement the think tank's ideas, not have the think tank scramble to justify the political arm's goals.

Posted by at May 4, 2017 6:49 AM