The Dilemma of the D.C. Think Tank

Conservative think tanks are weighing the relative risks and rewards of independence and influence—an old dilemma made newly relevant by President Trump.

President Trump speaks to the Heritage Foundation’s President’s Club Meeting in Washington, D.C., on October 17, 2017.  (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

As Kay Coles James prepares to begin her tenure as head of the Heritage Foundation, she faces an immediate opportunity—and challenge. She inherits a storied American institution, which currently holds the title of—to quote the former and interim Heritage president Ed Feulner—“Donald Trump’s favorite think tank.” This privileged status brings with it significant advantages in terms of PR and access, but it also carries danger should the administration and the think tank diverge from one another. This is the delicate task that lies ahead of James—striking a balance between influence and independence in the work that Heritage will do.

Steering too far in the direction of independence risks provoking presidential disapproval. In fact, it was the displeasure of one White House aide with the think tanks of the time that led to creation of the Heritage Foundation in the first place. In 1970, a small delegation of conservatives met with the Nixon White House staffer Lyn Nofziger to discuss how to get research support for conservative ideas in Congress. When one of the participants mentioned the American Enterprise Institute, Nofziger had a visceral reaction. Paul Weyrich, who was at the meeting, recalled that Nofziger said: “‘AEI? AEI—I'll tell you about AEI.’ And he got up, walked over to a bookcase, took a study off the shelf and literally blew the dust—I mean, you saw this cloud of dust. And he said, ‘That's what they're good for. They're good for libraries.’” The beer mogul Joseph Coors, who was also at the meeting, decided as a result to back the initiative that became the Heritage Foundation.

The Nixon team was concerned that AEI was too academic. But when it came to Richard Nixon and the liberal Brookings Institution, there was out-and-out enmity. Nixon disliked Brookings so much that he asked his top aide H.R. Haldeman to have someone break into Brookings and steal its files on Vietnam: “The way I want that handled, Bob, is through another way. I want Brooking [sic]—just to break in. Break in and take it out! You understand?” Nixon also once suggested to aide Chuck Colson that he have someone “firebomb” Brookings, enabling FBI agents to steal the files during the ensuing confusion. Nixon even had Brookings as an institution on his infamous enemies list, in slot #33, listed as “Brookings Institution, Lesley Gelb and others.” The Brookings economist Charles Schultze was on the list as well, in slot #45.

It wasn’t only Republican politicians who had problems with Brookings. Jimmy Carter and Brookings were mutually skeptical of one another. When Carter was preparing to run for president, the Carter adviser Stuart Eizenstat set up a briefing for Carter at Brookings in which, according to Eizenstat, “one of the participants asked what this person was, you know, running for.” But Carter and his people were wary of the Brookings types as well. As then-campaign aide, and now Atlantic correspondent, James Fallows recalled, “Carter had enjoyed receiving the busloads of eastern experts wrinkled and cranky after the three-hour ride from Atlanta to Plains—knowing that they’d tell their friends at Brookings and Harvard about the brilliance of the simple country boy, knowing also that they'd call him a dumb southern redneck when he made his first mistake.”

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and his team started to see that think tanks could be important allies. Heritage famously put together its Mandate for Leadership document for the Reagan team with 2,000 specific policy proposals, 60 percent of which were adopted during Reagan’s eight years. William F. Buckley, the founder of modern conservatism, joked about the document’s influence that “Sixty percent of the suggestions enjoined on the new president were acted upon (which is why Mr. Reagan's tenure was 60 percent successful).” Reagan himself spoke more positively about Mandate, saying at a 1988 Heritage-sponsored event honoring Jack Kemp that “the Heritage Foundation eight years ago set out what it termed a Mandate for Leadership, which came as a warning shot, telling the liberal establishment that a new sheriff and new deputies had ridden into town and they could not expect to carry on business as usual. Well, tonight I think the liberal pundits can read our lips. That mandate has been renewed.” Reagan also acknowledged the growing power of conservative think tanks, joking at a 1987 Heritage speech that Feulner left a stint as consultant to Reagan on domestic policy because “he wanted to get back to Heritage. He knows where the real power center in Washington is.

Heritage was not the only think tank to work closely with Reagan, though. The Hoover Institution’s policy anthology, The United States in the 1980s, had 17 contributors who would later go work in the Reagan administration, including Hoover senior fellow Martin Anderson, domestic policy adviser in the Reagan White House. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev was so disturbed by the Hoover policy book that he unhappily told U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz that “We have read this book and watched all its programs become adopted by the Reagan administration.” (Gorbachev would also complain about Heritage’s influence on the Reagan administration at the start of the 1986 Reykjavik summit.)

With Reagan in the 1980s, presidential attention became something think tanks sought rather than avoided. While Heritage and Hoover could both lay claim to the title of Reagan’s favorite think tank, the American Enterprise Institute was also on Reagan’s “best friends list.” In 1988, Reagan said that “today the most important American scholarship comes out of our think tanks, and no think tank has been more influential than the American Enterprise Institute.” George H.W. Bush also paid homage to AEI, joking about AEI fellow Irving Kristol in 1991 that “legions of proteges in every corner of the political and intellectual worlds open doors by saying ‘Irving sent me.’”

The Republicans’ success with the think-tank world led to Democratic imitators. No think tank was ever better at promoting the candidate and agenda combination than the Progressive Policy Institute and its parent organization, the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC was founded to make the Democratic Party both more centrist and more competitive at the presidential level. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton served as its chair, and their partnership brought the Democrats back to the White House after three straight election losses. The Washington Post referred to PPI as Clinton’s “brain shop of choice,” and claimed it was “wired into the fledgling Clinton administration like a microchip.” Multiple DLC/PPI staffers, including Al From, William Galston, Elaine Kamarck, and Bruce Reed, served the Clinton administration in a variety of ways. And PPI ideas, including welfare reform, became policy staples of the Clinton administration.

Clinton would reward DLC/PPI with more than just appointments in his administration. He spoke to the DLC multiple times. Before the administration even started, President-elect Clinton praised the DLC’s agenda “of opportunity, responsibility, and community.” Two years later, after the midterm election loss of 1994, he returned to the DLC and explained that he ran for president “because the DLC made me believe that ideas could matter in national politics just like they do in other forms of public endeavor.” In 1998, he would return again to the DLC and say that “the success of the last five years owes much to the ideas and the work of the DLC.” Interestingly, the Clinton era was a high-water mark for the DLC and the PPI, and the two organizations, now officially separate entities, have yet to regain the influence they had under Clinton.

Following the Clinton administration, it became an expectation that candidates of both sides seek support from think-tank scholars and even forge informal alliances with certain think tanks. In the late 1990s, Texas Governor George W. Bush sought to distinguish himself from a crowded field by winning over key think-tank scholars. In an April 1998 meeting at the home of former Secretary of State and Hoover Institution fellow George Shultz, Bush charmed a crowd of Hoover fellows with his policy smarts and knowledge. Martin Anderson noted afterwards that Bush “surprised people with how quick he was and how much he knew.” Anderson even said he had a light bulb moment, thinking, “Hey, this guy's really good.” Based on Bush’s performance, Anderson helped Bush set up a policy operation, with the assistance of Hoover colleagues Shultz, Michael Boskin, and Condoleezza Rice, who became Bush’s first national-security adviser and later secretary of state. The policy advisory apparatus, which had over 100 outside experts and three separate divisions, had heavy representation from both Hoover and AEI.

The conservative think tanks were rewarded when Bush became president. Hooverites like John Taylor and Ed Lazear would join Rice in the administration. At a 2007 speech to AEI, Bush said,
“I admire AEI a lot; I’m sure you know that. After all, I have been consistently borrowing some of your best people. More than 20 AEI scholars have worked in my administration.” That 2007 speech was one of at least three times Bush spoke to AEI, including a speech towards the end of his administration in 2008 and an appearance at the AEI annual dinner in 2003. At that event, he made a similar joke to the one his father told in 1991, saying “They were about to stop me at the door, but Irving Kristol said, ‘I know this guy—let him in.’” According to Think Tank Watch, more than 80 people with think-tank ties would serve in some capacity in the Bush administration.

In the early 2000s, some Democrats noted with displeasure the benefits the right got from think tanks. With academia largely intolerant and even actively hostile to conservative scholars, they tended to migrate to the think tanks, and leave the ivy-covered institutions to the liberals. This created a pro-conservative imbalance in the think-tank world. “They have a dozen think tanks, and we have none,” Democratic Senator Tom Daschle complained in 2003. In the early 2000s, some former Clinton aides tried to correct that imbalance by creating the Center for American Progress. CAP was explicitly modeled on Heritage, and CAP president, and former Clinton chief of staff, John Podesta aimed to make CAP into a “think tank on steroids.”

Unsurprisingly given its origins, CAP was seen as Hillary territory during the 2008 campaign, but quickly found common cause with the Obama team during the transition, which Podesta headed. Logically, this carried over into the new administration. As Politico put it in 2011, CAP served as “a key ally of the Obama White House, developing policy plans that included an outline for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and defending the administration from Republican attacks on its media outlet, ThinkProgress.”

“I could not be more grateful to CAP not only for giving me a lot of good policy ideas but also giving me a lot of staff,” Obama said in 2013. “My friend John Podesta ran my transition. My chief of staff, Denis McDonough, did a stint at CAP. So you guys are obviously doing a good job training folks.” One third of CAP’s staff went into the Obama administration, and The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney jibed that Van Jones’s move from the White House to CAP constituted a “transfer.” Neera Tanden, now CAP’s president, Carol Browner, Melody Barnes, and Jennifer Palmieri were others who had positions with both CAP and Obama.

Even though the pattern of think-tank alliances with presidential campaigns of both administrations appears to have become a bipartisan tradition, the campaign and election of Donald Trump largely rewrote conventional wisdom. Traditional conservative think tanks were not Trump-friendly, and some if not most conservative think tanks seemed downright hostile to him. For his part, Trump did not seem that interested in the support of the traditional conservative establishment, either.

Following his election, Heritage stepped into the void. Ed Feulner directly advised the Trump transition, and a number of Heritage staffers joined the new administration, including Paul Winfree and James Sherk at the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Nina Owcharenko at HHS. Trump himself acknowledged Heritage’s cooperation, giving former Heritage president Jim DeMint a 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.” Trump continued his support for Heritage by speaking to Heritage’s President’s Club in October, singling out not only Feulner but also Heritage scholars Ed Meese and Stephen Moore as well. He also praised Heritage itself, saying that “the great Heritage Foundation has been at the center of several incredible tax cuts in American history.”

Part of the bond is that Heritage had also had its problems with the Republican establishment, just as Trump did. Congressional Republicans, angry at the positions taken by Heritage’s political arm, Heritage Action—itself an innovation copied from CAP—restricted access by Heritage staffers to some internal GOP meetings. And former Speaker John Boehner was so angry at DeMint that he raged to a Politico reporter that DeMint “ran Heritage into the ground.”

Historically, rebukes like these from a president would be rare, certainly in the post-Nixon era. A more likely punishment for a think tank out of presidential favor would be a deliberate lack of relevancy with the administration, relegating it to the same status as the 1,800 or so other think tanks in the country (400 or so in Washington alone). But the Trump administration is different. If it does not like the direction of the new Heritage, it is more apt than previous administrations to express that unhappiness personally and publicly.

At this point, given the challenges both Heritage and Trump face in our fractured political debates, their alliance may grow stronger. But the onset of the James reign at Heritage raises some questions going forward. Will James be able to rebuild ties to the traditional right and the congressional Republicans while also staying in the good graces of Trump allies like Steve Bannon, who want to tear down the GOP establishment? What will James do about Heritage Action, which has been seen recently as the organization determining what Heritage the think tank does, rather than having the political arm follow the think tank’s lead? Whatever approach James takes, the history of past presidents and think tanks can provide some guidelines for action for Heritage, but also for think tanks in general. After all, it would be a shame to see the end of this long-standing relationship, which has brought smart people and creative policies into administrations on the left and right alike.