Updated at 5:29 p.m.
Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate on foreign policy and national security will feature a new element: think tanks.
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Heritage Foundation, two conservative think tanks that are co-sponsoring the debate with CNN, will appear front and center by asking many of the questions during the debate that will be moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer at the historic 2800 capacity Daughters of the Revolution Constitution Hall.
Think tanks, which have traditionally worked in the realms of academic and policy research, are continually pushing the boundaries to make themselves more politically relevant. Instead of being content with publishing books and holding annual conferences, in recent years think tanks have spent significant resources to make sure their staffs are available to politicians, their publications are in the hands of White House staff and that they host policy-specific briefings catering to schedules on the Hill. Perhaps ironically, these aspirations are precisely what raise questions about their involvement in a political contest for the highest office in the country.
AEI and Heritage say they decided to host a debate when they saw a hole in the schedule: no foreign policy debates were on the docket.
Danielle Pletka, AEI vice president for foreign and defense policy studies, said that their participation was “unusual, but the right thing to do.”
“Heritage is delighted to have this opportunity to increase public understanding of the candidates’ positions on critical foreign policy and national security questions requiring American leadership in the second decade of the 21st century,” Heritage President Ed Feulner said.
But can the two think tanks divorce themselves from the candidates they are tied to in order to produce an impartial debate?
The recently surging Newt Gingrich spent the last 12 years at the American Enterprise Institute as a senior fellow and left just before he announced his candidacy for the presidency. Mitt Romney has a long-standing relationship with the Heritage Foundation from which he drew three scholars (and one from AEI) for his foreign policy team. And former ambassador to the UN John Bolton, a senior fellow at AEI, has reportedly been advising multiple candidates, but especially Rick Perry.
Rory Cooper, director for communications at Heritage, said that he anticipates nobody will be able to detect any favoritism because they have “a close relationship with all of the candidates.”
Pletka, on the other hand, says they had to put up a “very thick firewall” between the scholars who are working on the campaign and those who are helping plan the debate. She added that CNN has been “absolutely scrupulous” in making sure there would be no conflicts of interest between the campaigns and the production of the debate.
Even with all the precautions, other think tanks aren’t ready to make that move.
During the 2000 Al Gore presidential campaign, a stop included the Brookings Institution where campaign staff distributed materials and hung banners--something that made executive management at Brookings very uncomfortable. Following that occasion, Brookings has taken extra care not to repeat those circumstances, saying that they host members of Congress, mayors, governors, some of whom are up for re-election, but that “as an independent, non-partisan think tank, we extend these invitations for policy discussions, not as partisan political activities.”
When Tim Pawlenty asked the Cato Institute to host his first policy speech in the days following his candidacy announcement in May, Cato agreed but took a number of precautions to make sure that politics was as far from their building as possible. Pawlenty was restricted to a policy address, no media questions were permitted and the audience could only ask policy-relevant questions. Once the event was over, Pawlenty had media availability outside on the sidewalk and not in the building.
Cato executive vice president David Boaz told Think Tanked at the time that they are “always interested in the policy positions of presidential candidates, but we need to steer clear of political activity on our grounds.”
The Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of Washington’s premiere international affairs think tanks, says it would only sponsor a debate if it could do so evenly.
“CSIS wouldn’t sponsor a presidential debate on foreign policy unless we could do one for Democrats and one for Republicans, or, one debate comprised of both parties,” said said H. Andrew Schwartz, CSIS senior vice president for external relations. “In the case of this election season you only have one party seeking to nominate a candidate with the other candidate sitting in the White House.”
And for some that issue is the crux of the problem: AEI and Heritage may have taken every possible step to make sure the debate is as fair as possible and even if they’ve succeeded, they are still co-sponsoring a debate designed to help Americans determine which Republican will attempt to defeat the sitting Democratic president, thereby making this a partisan event--a violation of their tax status.
“Most think tanks are only non-partisan with a wink and a nod,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a transparency watchdog group. “It’s a problem that says more about our tax code than it does the debate.”
The IRS, however, apparently views this potential violation as something of a gray area.
“What the IRS is most interested in is the content of the questions,” said Marcus Owens, former director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division.
Owens said the IRS will look at the terminology used, if certain candidates are clearly given easier or harder questions than others and additional indicators that would “suggest a level of coordination” to help one or more candidates over others.
However, Mike Gonzalez, Heritage vice president for communications, said question difficulty will not be an issue since Wolf Blitzer will determine which candidates receive the questions posed by the think tank scholars.
IRS code explicitly allows non-profit organizations to host political debates as long as all reasonably qualified candidates are invited, questions do not favor one candidate, a range of issues are covered, all candidates get equal time and the moderator must not editorialize.
Some suggest that a substantial number of skeptical questions should be enough to indicate to AEI and Heritage that they should not be in the business of presidential debates.
Pletka seems impervious to the criticism, saying, “People will just have to watch and see for themselves...the proof is in the pudding.”
“Ultimately, it’s our credibility and reputation on the line and that’s very important to us,” she added.
This post was updated to include a statement reflecting the procedures for the questions from AEI and Heritage scholars.