The Heritage Foundation Has Given Up on That Boring 'Think Tank' Stuff

Here's what the Heritage Foundation has gotten from Jim DeMint: a rapid transformation from the intellectual center of the Republican Party to the activist center of the Tea Party.

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Whether or not the Heritage Foundation knew what it was getting when it hired South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint to run the organization, here's what it's gotten: a rapid transformation from the intellectual center of the Republican Party to the activist center of the Tea Party.

The evolution isn't as sudden as The New York Times' Jennifer Steinhauer and Jonathan Weisman present in their front page article on Monday. Even before DeMint left his position in the Senate to take over Heritage, it had stumbled over some intellectual inconsistencies. (The organization is widely credited with having invented the individual mandate now at the center of conservative outrage over Obamacare.) But under DeMint, the organization's activist side has reached full blossom. "Long known as an incubator for policy ideas and the embodiment of the party establishment," Steinhauer and Weisman write, "it has become more of a political organization feeding off the rising populism of the Tea Party movement."

The report details the at-times-confusing march of Heritage over the past year, with its established (though ideological) economists facing off against Heritage Action, the new advocacy arm of the institution. Those economists had been invited to a key Republican discussion group, until, as The Atlantic's Molly Ball reported in September, Heritage Action first called for and then criticized splitting the Farm Bill into two pieces. "Heritage was now scoring against Republicans for doing exactly what Heritage had been espousing only a month before," Rep. Mick Mulvaney told National Journal. Heritage was no longer welcome at the Republican Study Committee.

From Heritage Action's scorecard.

Heritage Action is also the group that spent last summer hosting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in a series of discussions focused on blocking Obamacare by swearing to oppose any funding bill that included money for the health care program — obstinance that led directly to the October government shutdown. (Cruz earned a 100 percent in Heritage Action's latest congressional scorecard.) But the Times reports that such action is precisely the point; that DeMint, "drawing on his experience in advertising and marketing" prior to his Senate career, aims "to spread the ethos of the Heritage Foundation more broadly and among younger recruits."

DeMint insists that he "had no intention to get more political," and that "the whole conservative movement counts on Heritage for its intellectual integrity," according to Steinhauer and Weisman. Others disagree. "DeMint has not only politicized Heritage, he’s also trivialized it," a founding trustee of the organization told the Times. Ball reports that "prominent Republicans publicly worry they're becoming the 'stupid party.'"

Liberal economist Paul Krugman went further, as he does. DeMint didn't destroy Heritage's intellectual integrity, he says, it "never had any." Outlining a number of recent errors, Krugman says that Heritage isn't a think tank in the sense that "actual thought or research took place there. It just played one on TV."

Ball makes clear that even Heritage was having trouble keeping up the act. From its initial guiding document in the Reagan administration, a 3,000-page manual outlining conservative orthodoxy, its plans have become more and more modest. It was invited to the Republican Study Committee to provide insight into policy. That it's no longer welcome there suggests, among other things, that there wasn't much insight anymore. The Times says that there's been an "exodus of top experts and administrators," reinforcing the trend.

It's hard to see this as anything other than an intentional overhaul. What Heritage hired in 2013 was a senator with a marketing background, who thinks that the organization "had allowed [conservative ideas] to become too serious." DeMint's Heritage clearly doesn't take ideas too seriously. Given the recent struggles within the Republican Party, leveraging an activist group willing to put political pressure on elected officials is probably a more effective way to change policy anyway.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.