Meet the Newer, Softer Heritage Action for America

The conservative group isn't moderating its principles, but it is focusing more on reform over opposition in the new year.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 06: U.S. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) talks on the phone in his office December 6, 2012 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Senator DeMint announced today that he will resign from the Senate to become the president of the Heritage Foundation.  (National Journal)

Heritage Action for America spent the past two years as an obstructionist force within the Republican Party, hoping to pull the party to the right through a string of confrontations. But now, with Republicans running Congress, the group is changing its strategy toward a policy push, advocating an economic agenda aimed at appealing to middle-class voters. The rationale behind the shift comes from an understanding that constructive policy ideas sell better than instinctive opposition—even if Heritage Action's favored prescriptions are more conservative than what many party officials support.

While the conservative group makes no apologies for its fights with party leaders, it is embracing ideas from the party's intellectual wing—ranging from Rep. Paul Ryan to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. In an article published in the winter issue of National Affairs, Heritage Action for America CEO Mike Needham approvingly cites Douthat's and Reihan Salam's recent book Grand New Party for acknowledging that modern-day conservatism struggles to offer policies that would benefit noncollege-educated, blue-collar, "Sam's Club" voters. And he credits Ryan with building a GOP consensus on controversial issues such as Medicare premium support. Needham's article also singles out Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah for praise, calling them among the "most innovative policy entrepreneurs among congressional Republicans."

"To many reform-minded observers eager to help the Republican Party build a mandate for a conservative governing agenda, this discord appears pointless and counterproductive, undermining Republican efforts to project the steadiness needed to govern while accomplishing little to improve the likelihood of future conservative policy victories," Needham wrote. "Unified Republican control of the Congress now presents an opportunity for a reset, perhaps making possible a fresh start for collaboration between the grassroots and the Republican leadership that has long been reluctant to govern from one house of Congress."

The piece previewed this week's Heritage Action for America policy summit, with its message titled: "Opportunity for All, Favoritism Towards None." While the two-day conference is featuring red-meat speeches from the likes of Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Tom Cotton, its focus was on advocating the "reform conservative movement." In kicking off the event, Heritage President Jim DeMint said the purpose of the conference was to "show Americans how our ideas and policies will make their life better and country stronger." In his speech, House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price emphasized one of his goals in the upcoming year is to "normalize the debate on controversial issues" that Heritage advocates.

"They're trying to come up with affirmative ways to show they care about middle-class voters while sticking to their principles, and aren't just focusing on cuts to the social safety net," said one Republican strategist with ties to an outside conservative group. "It's part of this debate that Paul Ryan has articulated that's happening within the party—where you can't just be for reforming social welfare without being in favor of reforming corporate welfare."

The big question is whether the shift in tone from Heritage Action is more about rebranding its image, or a substantive shift.

Heritage Action leaders make no apologies for their past aggressive tactics, with Needham writing in his piece that they were "crucial intermediate steps toward the long-term goal of legislating that are often ignored by those who give the establishment the benefit of the doubt." But that acrimony led to some very public, nasty disputes—most notably, when the conservative Republican Study Committee barred Heritage Foundation employees from attending its weekly meetings in the Capitol amid disagreement over extending the farm bill. Now, with a growing roster of like-minded senators in the GOP caucus, many recognize that it's important to get beyond the infighting and embrace legislation that both factions can agree on.

And while Heritage prioritizes principle over politics, the political winds have shifted markedly from the first Republican wave election in 2010. That November, voters in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll were nearly split on whether they preferred their representatives to make compromises or stick to their campaign positions. They narrowly favored compromise, 47 percent to 43 percent. But in last November's survey, 63 percent supported compromise, while just 31 percent wanted their leaders to stick to principles. To gain widespread support beyond its amen corner, Heritage must reach out to the many disaffected voters—even those who aren't on the front lines of conservative activism.

"[Congress is] not speaking to the real anxieties of most Americans. There's nobody across the country that's ever heard of TRIA, but one of the biggest fight in Washington over the last six weeks is whether TRIA [Terrorism Risk Insurance Act] gets extended," Needham told National Journal. "What a lot of Americans are looking for is a genuine agenda that speaks to the anxieties they have, and that's a tough thing for Washington to deliver because it's not what K Street's asking for."

Notably, while much of the conservative movement gets painted in one broad brush, there are small but important differences between the activism of groups such as Heritage Action for America and the anti-tax Club for Growth. The Club for Growth receives most of its funding from deep-pocketed donors, who aren't particularly interested in tweaking the tax code to achieve conservative ends. Heritage Action for America gets a larger share from small, less-wealthy donors, (44 percent of donations under $5000, according to its 2012 return), who are more receptive to conservative policies geared toward working-class Americans.

The group's supporters are not necessarily on board with Jeb Bush's specific prescriptions on, say, education reform, but they're in sync with the need to tackle policy changes on bread-and-butter issues that average Americans relate to. Reducing the federal role in education may not be embraced by many leading conservative reformers, but as Reihan Salam points out in Slate, it could be a politically potent message capitalizing on anxiety over how some federal standards limit flexibility for local schools. One bill championed by Heritage—the HERO Act sponsored by Lee—would make it easier for states to accredit online educational courses, promoting more choice and flexibility for students.

While most of the political attention is on the developing 2016 presidential field, the most consequential action in 2015 will be taking place within the newly GOP-controlled Congress. Next year's presidential primaries will feature a showdown between the leading advocates of the establishment wing's preference to use government to improve policy outcomes and the tea party's desire to reduce government, period. But there's a third way emerging: advocating conservative reforms that appeal to working-class voters more than corporate interests. Expect the Heritage Foundation to be on the forefront of that fight—and its success in Congress will go a long way in determining the movement's long-term clout.