Correction: In the post below, I wrote that AEI “ran” a GOP primary debate in 2011. According to my reporting, AEI did conceive and initiate planning for the debate, but it was then co-sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, AEI and CNN.
For the second time in two days,the New York Times has gotten it very wrong when it comes to the world of conservative think tanks. In today’s edition of “What’s wrong with this picture?” it appears the reporter doesn’t read her own paper.
The story concerns a new building for the American Enterprise Institute. The reporter, however, strays off topic to pronounce: “The group is seeking to move out of the shadow of the much younger Heritage Foundation, which for years has been more influential and which has increasingly moved to become more of a political than a research organization.” This is pure nonsense.
Indeed, the one part of the story the Times did get right on Monday is the precipitous decline, leading to near-irrelevance, of the Heritage Foundation. It has been subsumed, as we’ve written for months, to the political entity Heritage Action (not the Foundation itself as the Times states). Heritage Foundation’s decline has been remarked upon in conservative circles, on Capitol Hill and among other right-leaning think tanks. It’s no secret and, as I explained yesterday, necessitated the hiring of Stephen Moore as chief economist in an effort to stabilize the rocky ship.
As for the American Enterprise Institute, if you took a poll of conservatives on the Hill and asked which think tank has the most intellectual and policy heft, I suspect AEI would win in a landslide. There is a reason AEI helps staff GOP presidential campaigns and administrations. It is the same reason why AEI scholars are regularly sought after by conservative and mainstream media to opine on policy developments.
The story of the conservative think tank world in the last or so year has been the collapse, tragically so for the conservative movement, of the Heritage Foundation as a respected intellectual heavyweight. But part of that has also been the intellectual dominance of AEI, which, as we have pointed out, is central to a policy revolution on the right that is proactive, reform-minded and focused on upward mobility.
The conservative movement would benefit from a diversity of views. After all, conservatives believe in the free marketplace, which extends to intellectual endeavors, too. However, it is essential to be realistic about the intellectual landscape and the problems, both political and policy-wise, on the right.
One option for Heritage Foundation would be to spin off Heritage Action, get it out of its building and reestablish a dividing line between intellectually independent scholarship and political attack-dog tactics. That would go a long way toward providing the scholars who remain at Heritage (who, as the Times documented on Monday, have seen a stream of their colleagues go out the door) the respect and berth they deserve. Now, Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint is no intellectual, but he is a masterful marketing man and fundraiser. Perhaps he is really the man to head the political machine, not the intellectual endeavor. Indeed, while heading the think tank, DeMint appears at Heritage Action events and seems to be leading the charge against incumbent Republicans, a political activity.
Were Heritage Action with DeMint in charge to decamp, Heritage Foundation, whose reputation has taken a beating, and the conservative movement might benefit. Of course it would deny Heritage Action the cache of the Heritage Foundation name, but if it really has the pulse of the conservative movement, it should be able to stand on its own.