“I understand why some of the politicians get upset. I get it,” Truluck said. “But our role is not to make politicians happy or angry. Our goal is to get the best policy adopted that we can for the country.”
If anything, the current uproar shows Heritage’s activism is having an effect, said Mike Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action and a former Heritage Foundation chief of staff. Heritage’s turn to more hard-edged activism is part of a larger trend of increased grassroots influence on politics, enabled by communication technology, he posited. “For two decades, the two political parties had all the power, controlled the narrative, and told constituents their spin on their votes,” he said. “Now, well-informed constituents can form tough questions and challenge members’ monopoly on influence. That’s an exciting change.”
As the Republican Party has weakened, outside groups like Heritage have gained strength because they feed the grassroots hunger for true conservatism, said Dan Holler, Heritage Action’s communications director. “From 2003 to 2007, our donor base grew astronomically. It went from 250,000 to 600,000,” he said. “Folks were telling us, ‘I’ve stopped giving to the RNC and the NRCC. I want someone in Washington who’s going to actually fight for conservative principles.’” Heritage’s goal, in Holler’s view, is “to push the policy discussion as far to the right as possible.”
For Republicans, stuck in a defensive crouch, being pushed as far to the right as possible is an alarming prospect, particularly when they thought they were pretty far to the right to begin with.
In my interviews with them, Heritage officials could recite chapter and verse on why Heritage turned against the individual mandate—a turn, they claim, that occurred before Romney or Obama adopted the idea. “We still believe universal coverage is a good idea,” Truluck said. But none of the four Heritage officials I interviewed could tell me offhand how the foundation proposes to reform health care and cover the uninsured if Obamacare is scrapped. (Later, an assistant followed up by emailing me links to Heritage papers on “putting patients first,” regulating the health-insurance market, and Medicare reform.)
Mickey Edwards, the onetime Heritage trustee, agrees that the foundation was never intended to be an arm of the GOP. “We always considered this to be a conservative organization, not a Republican organization,” he said. “However, nor was it meant to be an activist group. It was to advocate for ideas, not campaign to try and beat people.”
Because of the threat of right-wing primary challenges, there seems to be no limit to how far right Republican politicians can be pushed, Edwards said. “The American people don’t want the government shut down. They want control over taxes and spending,” he said. “But when you carry that to the point of saying, ‘We want what we want, and if we don’t get what we want we’re going to shut down the government,’ I don’t think that’ll be popular at all. I think the Republican Party will be hurt a lot if Republicans in Congress go along with this idea.”
But the Republican Party, as Republicans are finding out the hard way, is not the Heritage Foundation’s concern.