The Heritage Foundation was built to matter, and for its first three decades it mattered as much as any think tank in Washington. In 1971, two Republican Hill staffers, Ed Feulner and Paul Weyrich, were annoyed that a useful American Enterprise Institute study on government funding for the Supersonic Transport plane wasn't issued until a few days after a close vote on the issue. Weyrich called AEI President William Baroody to ask him why: "Great study. Why didn't we get it sooner?" Baroody's response, "We didn't want to try to affect the outcome of the vote."
Feulner and Weyrich found this absurd: If you had a good idea, why wouldn't you want it to influence the vote? So they set out to create an institution that would indeed change minds in Congress. The result, founded in 1973, was The Heritage Foundation and its famed briefcase test—all Heritage reports had to be able to fit into briefcases and be readable in less than an hour. The executive summaries of the reports were even designed to be digested by senators and representatives riding on the Capitol subway on the way to a vote.
Heritage's model was incredibly successful, and influential. In 1980, Heritage's Mandate for Leadership report provided 2,000 specific ideas for Ronald Reagan's administration to put into place—and fully 60 percent of these proposals would be adopted. Heritage's success begot imitators on both sides of the aisle. The Progressive Policy Institute served as the "president's brain shop of choice" in Bill Clinton's administration. Republicans reacted to Clinton's victory in 1992 by creating their own advocacy think tanks like the Project for the Republican Future and Empower America. And in 2003, ex-Clinton aides created the Center for American Progress, a think tank explicitly modeled on Heritage, to house former Democratic officials and develop ideas for Democratic politicians. CAP also created a political arm, the CAP Action Fund. Heritage created its own political arm, Heritage Action, in 2010.
Along the way, these close ties to campaigns and parties began to change the relationship between think tanks' ideas and their political goals. The linkage of specific candidates to specific think tanks, such as Clinton and PPI—and the ideological sorting that connected think tank ideas more closely to political parties—raised questions of whether think tanks were driving the ideas agenda in Washington, or just supplying ideas to meet political goals.
The unceremonious ouster of former Sen. Jim DeMint from the Heritage Foundation, where he had been president since 2013, has now shined a spotlight directly on this problem at Heritage itself, but also on think tanks more broadly—and creates a rare opportunity to build the kind of intellectual engine that conservatism needs right now.
In one sense, the DeMint ouster came as a surprise: Under his leadership, Heritage made—and won—a big bet on Donald Trump. DeMint and the think tank backed Trump at a time when many other conservative think tanks were taking a deliberately hands-off approach. Heritage was amply rewarded as a result. There was early input on the campaign, key slots in the transition and important posts in the new administration. Just minutes after reports first surfaced in Politico that DeMint was on his way out, President Trump gave DeMint a generous shoutout during a speech to the National Rifle Association: "Also from Heritage, Jim DeMint, it's been amazing. Those people have been fantastic, they've been real friends." This kind of presidential love is pure gold in think tank world—good for donors, good for staff morale, and "huge" for securing those all-important TV bookings.
But within the famed first 100 days of the Trump administration, DeMint was headed out the door. The reasons for his ouster remain unclear. As with so many other things in Washington today, there are multiple narratives in play. Many who follow the think tank space believe that DeMint had taken Heritage too far in a problematic direction, making it more political and less devoted to independent conservative scholarship. Others have suggested that he is leaving as a result of clashes with Heritage Action head Mike Needham, who has pushed for the more political approach.
Either way, DeMint had signaled a directional shift from the moment he was hired. As a South Carolina senator, DeMint had clashed constantly with his own party's leadership, challenging it for not being conservative enough. His most famous uttering was his line about preferring a Senate with 30 hard-core 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 long-standing 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 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.
When they're built right and have the right incentives, think tanks can make crucial contributions to American policy. Successful policies that came from think tanks include the Marshall Plan after World War II (Brookings), welfare reform in the 1990s (Heritage, Hudson Institute and Manhattan Institute), and even the surge in Iraq (AEI). The search for a new Heritage president provides a storied conservative institution with an opportunity to get back on the right track. Heritage should make the most of it.