Jim DeMint and the death of think tanks

December 6, 2012

Sen. Jim DeMint isn't associated with a particular policy project, the way, say, Rep. Paul Ryan is known for pushing premium support and private accounts in Social Security and block grants in Medicaid. He's not known as an intellectual, the way, say, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was. He's not known for bridging the worlds between academia and politics, the way Reps. David Price (a former political scientist) or Rush Holt (a former rocket scientist) are. 

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

DeMint is known for his ceaseless work on behalf of a particular political project: trying to make the Republican Party more conservative. He's pursued this objective both strategically and tirelessly -- raising money, recruiting candidates and entering them in primaries and foiling the leadership of his own party. He's even built a super PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund, dedicated to helping more conservative candidates win primaries. They were big backers of, among others, Todd Akin in Missouri, Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Ted Cruz in Texas. 

To state the obvious, you don't name Jim DeMint head of your think tank because you're trying to improve the quality of your scholarship. You name DeMint head of your think tank because you're trying to become the leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

There's much that DeMint can bring to his new job as president of the Heritage Foundation. Deep connections with lawmakers. Genuine respect from the Tea Party. An immense talent for fundraising. A keen political sense. He might make the Heritage Foundation, which is already an able and effective advocate, a much more powerful force in Republican Party politics. But he will not make it a more respected force in the world of ideas.

The politicization of Washington's think tanks long predates DeMint. Tevi Troy, a former member of the George W. Bush administration, put in well in National Affairs:

Washington think tanks have undergone a transformation. Today, while most think tanks continue to serve as homes for some academic-style scholarship regarding public policy, many have also come to play more active (if informal) roles in politics. Some serve as governments-in-waiting for the party out of power, providing professional perches for former officials who hope to be back in office when their party next takes control of the White House or Congress. Some serve as training grounds for young activists. Some serve as unofficial public-relations and rapid-response teams for one of the political parties — providing instant critiques of the opposition's ideas and public arguments in defense of favored policies.

Yet, even at their most political, almost all think tanks are helmed by either academics or members of the policy community.

Strobe Talbott, head of the Brookings Institution, worked in the State Department and then headed Yale's Center for the Study of Globalization. Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, was recruited from Syracuse University, where he was the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government Policy. The Center for American Progress, which is probably the most activist think tank on the left, is led by Neera Tanden, who was Hillary Clinton's policy director.

Heritage has always been an unusually politicized think tank. As Troy recounts in his essay, it was founded by conservatives who thought the America Enterprise Institute was inexcusably reluctant to involve itself in politics. They relied on campaign techniques like direct mail to raise money and worked aggressively to play a friendly, advisory role to the Reagan administration.

Yet even the Heritage Foundation is headed by a former policy guy: Edwin John Fuelner Jr. began his career at the Center for Strategic and International Studies before moving to the Hill and becoming the director of the Republican Study Committee, the policy arm of House conservatives.

But DeMint doesn't have even one foot in the policy world. He's a politician who made his mark practicing a particularly hard-edged form of electoral politics: raising money to undermine insufficiently conservative Republicans. Heritage, which now has a direct political arm in the Heritage Action Foundation, isn't just bringing in a politicized policy wonk. It's bringing in an unusually politicized politician. That's breaking new ground.

None of this is a criticism of DeMint, or evidence that he won't be effective at making Heritage an even more significant voice on the right. He just isn't the guy who's going to make it a more intellectually honest and creative force on the right. Which is a shame, because the right could use more intellectually honest think tanks. Their problem in the last few years has been that they've had a dearth of ideas and an excess of extremely conservative politicians. A place like Heritage could, under the right leadership, help reverse that trend. Now it's poised to accelerate it. And if DeMint is successful at raising money and becoming more influential on the right, other think tanks will likely try to replicate his model.

"At a moment when we have too much noise in politics and too few constructive ideas," warned Troy, "these institutions may simply become part of the intellectual echo chamber of our politics, rather than providing alternative sources of policy analysis and intellectual innovation."

Heritage, far from trying to break the echo chamber, is trying to become the first voice in the chorus.

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