Depending on what you read, Michael Needham, the 31-year-old CEO of Heritage Foundation's Action arm, is the best or the worst thing to happen to conservative politics in decades.
In a New Republic article published today, Julia Ioffe makes the case that Needham, who heads the conservative think tank's newish activist branch, is destroying both the Republican party and the Heritage Foundation with his take-no-prisoners, toe-the-party-line-I-created ways. Even Mickey Edwards, a founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation and one of the few people to be quoted by name in the article, says "I don't think any thoughtful person is going to take the Heritage Foundation very seriously, because they’ll say, 'How is this any different from the Tea Party?'"
Under Needham, Ioffe says, Heritage Action amassed an army of "sentinels" ("ordinary citizens with a surplus of time and enthusiasm") who then organized local conservative constituents, making them ready to attack their representative's office with angry phone calls, emails and letters at a moment's notice should said representative run afoul of Heritage Action's ideological scorecard.
Many Republicans, who felt less than certain about the defund [Obamacare] strategy, felt entrapped, especially when these angry constituents confronted them at town halls.
On issue after issue, Needham’s ideological flame-throwing has made Heritage Action enemies in even the most conservative corners of Congress. Says the House GOP aide, “People on the Hill are very much rubbed the wrong way by a former Giuliani staffer who is around thirty years old, running around and determining whether they’re conservative or not.”
When Heritage Action's big push to defund Obamacare at any cost resulted in a 16-day government shutdown and some of the worst poll numbers the GOP has ever seen, Needham simply backpedaled and claimed he was pushing to repeal the law in 2017 all along.
And yet Needham’s blithe remark came as no surprise to the former veteran staffer at the Heritage Foundation. “One of the hallmarks of that millennial profile is an inability to acknowledge mistakes,” the staffer said, sounding equal parts bemused and exasperated. “Everything is right and nothing was a mistake, and they can spin it any way they want.”
So, while it might have been a septuagenarian (former Heritage Foundation CEO Ed Feulner) who put Needham at the head of Heritage Action and a sexagenarian (current Heritage Foundation CEO Jim DeMint) who is keeping him there, it's a Millennial's inability to admit he was wrong that's to blame.
Meanwhile, the National Review, in an article published October 30, called Needham an "action figure" who "has a passion for conservatism but takes a clinical view of policymaking." His organization, Robert Costa writes, "didn’t walk away [from the shutdown] empty-handed; it won influence."
Unlike Ioffe's take, which characterized Heritage Action as a sudden strong force that took over the Heritage Foundation before its staff knew what was happening, Costa says:
The evolution for Heritage Action, which was founded in 2010 and functions as the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, has been slow and steady. What started as another pressure group among hundreds has now become, in essence, the conservative movement’s daily whip team, with Needham often competing directly with Boehner’s whips to kill bills, amend legislation, and woo the right flank.
Moreover, Needham acknowledges his failures while remaining optimistic:
He remains disappointed about the way his defund strategy fizzled, but he’s convinced he can win the brewing conservative debate over best practices during divided government.
After all is said and done, Needham thinks he's just telling Republicans that their voters expect and deserve better:
"Politicians thrive on setting expectations as low as possible so that they can’t help but trip on them," Needham says. "What people actually want are politicians who try to inspire, try to achieve something, and your voters are smart enough to know that at a time of divided government, we might not get everything that we want."
And then there's the new Politico Magazine's oral history of the shutdown, with contributions from 14 Republican members of Congress and one man who "is not a House member at all yet seemed at times to have far more control over the body’s deliberations than even Speaker John Boehner did." Guess who? Yes, it's Michael Needham. According to the interviewees, he's as powerful as he is unpopular.
[Steve] Southerland: I stood up and said, “Here’s the deal, and I don’t need you to pray about this. I need you to tell me who’s yes and who’s no.” Of the 15 there, all were yeses, but three who were undecided. No hard nos. And so I felt all the guys I’m hanging with are on my team. They’re yeses.
[Kevin] McCarthy: They stayed that way until Heritage came after them, and one of them shifted.
Needham: We put out a public key-vote alert that articulated our views on the deal, and it was that it was insufficient. I don’t think we were speaking for ourselves. I think we were speaking for a lot of their constituents.
Southerland: I was in a meeting with Eric [Cantor] and Kevin [McCarthy] at 5, and at 5:30 I could tell—Kevin got up and [his] staff called him. And the numbers had come in, and it was not good—about four dozen that said they were nos.
[Adam] Kinzinger: And why? Because Heritage Action scored it. A 30-year-old staffer [Needham, who is 31] made a decision that affected the entire legislative process of the United States of America.
Needham: And look, if I were running the House, I’d have a vote on repeal every single month.
[Devin] Nunes: I don’t think we know where it ends. Not until people learn how the government works.
[Charlie] Dent: I don’t know who redefined conservatism to mean that instability and disorder and chaos are the way that we should proceed as a party.
I have a feeling a lot of Dent's fellow politicians would say the answer is Michael Needham.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.