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DeMint and Heritage: The odd couple of necessity

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Some are postulating that the arrival of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) at the Heritage Foundation spells the end of think tanks. Rubbish. Both on the right and left (and in the space that is in between) the intellectual activity, literary production and policy output of organizations including the American Enterprise Institute, the Council for Foreign Relations, Brookings, the Foreign Policy Initiative, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Ethics and Public Policy Center( to name a few) have arguably never been greater. But DeMint’s arrival does, one can argue, spell the demise of Heritage as a think tank.

Others were more delicate than I,  but you could hardly miss the  message among conservatives who noted that DeMint’s arrival is quite possibly the end of an era. Bill Kristol told Politico: “Heritage under Jim DeMint could well be a powerful political force. But will it be a powerful think-tank, a source of new policy ideas and fresh thinking? I hope so.” Umm, ouch.

 John Podhoretz wrote: “The temptation for DeMint will be to stress the institution’s role in opposition, which is his stock in trade as a senator, and to downgrade its policy role, which has had its major ‘up’s (welfare reform) and its blind-spot ‘down’s (advocating a health-care mandate in 1994). But if ideas do not play the central role, Heritage will hollow itself out, and that would be a great shame. [Departing president] Ed Feulner stands as one of the great public-policy innovators of the 20th century; it would be thrilling if the same could be said of Jim DeMint when he passes on the mantle to his successor.”

Put differently, one might ask whether Heritage should still bother to pass itself off as a think tank. (Critics of Heritage increasingly complained that rather than engage in independent research, it too often provided fodder for the right to oppose this or that specific piece of legislation, acting as a thinly disguised research wing of the GOP.)

The arrival of DeMint is only the capstone in a shift from intellectual workhorse to partisan  show horse. This was a long time in coming, as those who have been observing Heritage over the last couple of decades know all too well.

Let us be blunt: Look at the roster of experts there and compare it to the all-star line-ups at AEI, Hoover, FDD and other conservative think tanks. When I or dozens of others who write about conservative ideas want to get a learned opinion, with the exception of Heritage’s fine judicial scholars, Heritage is not where one looks. Heritage has not for some time now been the premier idea factory, the desired locale for the best and brightest on the right. It was in the 1980s; it is not now. When conservative all-stars sign up with think tanks these days, the prime spot is AEI or one of the boutique shops.

As was widely known, Heritage went through a lengthy search process before deciding on DeMint. Many of the names floated were scholarly figures, including conservative Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn. But neither he nor other thinker-public servants could be rounded up. DeMint’s hiring represents a sort of throwing in the towel on the effort to revive Heritage as a top-flight think tank.

So why maintain the pretense, which complicates its activities due to status as a 501(c)(3)?  Well, a tax-exempt status helps with fundraising. And conservatives, looked down upon by liberal elites, like the prestige that comes with publishing and researching.

At some point, however, if it has not happened already, Heritage’s political arm will completely subsume the think tank, most likely when DeMint wants to bring his brand of no-holds-barred partisanship to Heritage and not be bothered with cumbersome legal restrictions.

In some ways DeMint and Heritage are like divorcees who didn’t fit in their prior relationships, but now have found each other. Heritage cannot keep up with AEI , Hoover and others on the serious scholarship, so why not get a huge fundraiser, a headline- grabber and household name? DeMint, meanwhile, can vastly increase his earnings (he is among the poorest members of the Senate), enjoy a lavish expense budget and not be bothered with the late hours and constituent complaints that make for a certain drudgery in the Senate. Moreover, he wasn’t doing anything in the Senate for years other than taunting colleagues and trying to stop legislation that failed the purity test (all of it). That in part is a function of a do-nothing Senate, but it was also DeMint’s choice to eschew lawmaking, policy enactment, bridge-building and steady but slow progress in passing a conservative agenda. Ultimately, that’s not very fulfilling, especially if you aren’t paid very well.

So, on one hand, Heritage and DeMint are an odd pairing, but on the other, it is a marriage perhaps of necessity. A scholar at another think tank (one of many with whom I spoke yesterday) was somewhat aghast at the choice Heritage made but nevertheless cautioned, “All think-tank transitions are hard. Even the successful ones.” Nevertheless, if both parties going in have the same goal — convert Heritage from a shopworn think tank into a political colossus —  it can be a win for both DeMint and Heritage. For those loyal scholars who have stuck it out at Heritage? Not so much unfortunately.