Earlier this year, Tevi Troy wrote an outstanding essay for National Affairs discussing the increasing politicization and decreasing credibility of think tanks over the last decade or so. This phenomenon is driven by the desires of donors who increasingly view think tanks as tax-advantaged vehicles for influencing political outcomes.
Today’s appointment of Tea Party Senator Jim DeMint to lead the Heritage Foundation provides an example of this trend, but with a twist. The DeMint choice signals a shift toward more conservative activism from one of America’s largest think tanks and is sure to please conservative donors. But it’s not likely to provide donors the political results they want. Instead, it is likely to reduce the relevance of both DeMint and Heritage.
Heritage has always been the most political of the major think tanks; indeed, as Troy describes, its founders acted partly in reaction to their sense that the American Enterprise Institute and others were failing to effectively influence the lawmaking process. While most Washington think tanks are located in the city’s main business district, Heritage has its offices on Capitol Hill. In addition to its headquarters near the Senate, Heritage recently opened an annex office on the south side of the Hill to be closer to the House.
And unlike most think tanks, which rely solely on funding from foundations, corporations and high-net-worth individuals, Heritage also has a large and successful direct mail program, which results in small donations from individual activists motivated by political causes.
Nominally a think-tank with a 501(c)4 arm that can take non-tax-exempt donations and engage in campaign activity, Heritage looks increasingly like the reverse: a political pressure organization with a policy research arm.
And its policy research is increasingly incidental and low in quality. My favorite example is this 2010 Charles Stimson paper against marijuana legalization, one of whose listed crucial points is: “Marijuana is not at all like alcohol. Consumption of alcohol carries few health risks and even offers some significant benefits.”
Or consider Heritage's 2011 economic analysis, which said that the House Republican budget proposal would lead to an economic boom. Many analysts noted that some numbers in that report were screwy; for example, it said that the Republican plan would cause unemployment to stabilize at 2.8 percent. Facing pressure, Heritage adjusted the report to reflect a higher unemployment rate -- but without any changes to economic indicators that should be tied to unemployment, such as income tax collections and spending on unemployment benefits.
Although Heritage is not very credible on policy, its political organization remains excellent, and its tight links with Republicans on the Hill would make a former Republican senator seem like a logical choice to lead the think tank. But DeMint isn’t an ordinary senator: He’s arguably the most conservative member of the Republican conference, and his relations with his fellow Republicans have often been fraught. The 2010 Politico headline “Republican senators lash out at Jim DeMint” is not atypical.
Heritage was closely involved in developing Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, the policy platform on which Republicans retook the House of Representatives in 1994. It is hard to imagine a DeMint-led Heritage playing that kind of role with John Boehner, who is currently purging DeMint allies from important House committees; or with Mitch McConnell, who resents the headaches DeMint created while he tried to lead Senate Republicans, including intervening against McConnell’s preferred candidate in the 2010 Senate primary in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky.
DeMint is also a strange choice to lead a think tank because he is not a policy entrepreneur. His main accomplishment has been recruiting a number of other archconservative GOP senators, including Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin correctly noted that Mitch McConnell praised DeMint today for being “a powerful voice for conservative ideals” but not for helping to enact a conservative agenda, because he didn't really do the latter.
So the DeMint choice signals that Heritage will continue its shift away from doing credible policy research and toward being a political pressure group; and its shift away from being inside the Republican establishment and toward pressuring it from the outside, in a way akin to Tea Party groups like Americans for Prosperity.
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