New debate, new players

Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate on foreign policy and national security will feature a new element: a role for two Washington think tanks.

The American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, both conservative think tanks, are co-sponsoring the debate with CNN. Their scholars will also appear front and center by asking many of the questions during the debate, which will be moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer at Constitution Hall.

Think tanks have traditionally worked in the realm of academic and policy research but also have pushed the boundaries to make themselves more politically relevant. Rather than limiting themselves to 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 workers and they are hosting policy briefings that cater to schedules on the Hill.

The same aspirations could raise questions about their involvement in a debate that is part of a political contest for the presidency, given their connections to some of the candidates and prohibitions on partisan activity.

Officials from the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation say they decided to host a debate when they saw a hole in the schedule: at the time, no foreign policy debates were on the docket.

Danielle Pletka, the institute’s vice president for foreign and defense policy studies, said the institute’s 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 organizations divorce themselves from the candidates with whom they have ties and produce an impartial debate?

Newt Gingrich spent the past 12 years as a senior fellow at the institute, leaving before he announced his presidential run. Mitt Romney has a long-standing relationship with the Heritage Foundation, from which he drew three scholars for his foreign policy advisory team. (He also drew one from the institute.)

Rory Cooper, director of communications at Heritage, said the organization has “a close relationship with all of the candidates,” taking away the potential for favoritism.

Pletka said the American Enterprise Institute put up a “very thick firewall” between the scholars who are working on any campaign and those helping plan the debate. She said that CNN has been “absolutely scrupulous” in ensuring there will be no conflicts of interest.

The issue has come up in the past.

During the 2000 race, candidate Al Gore appeared at the Brookings Institution, where campaign staff distributed materials and hung banners, making Brookings managers uncomfortable.

Since then, Brookings has taken extra care, saying that, although it hosts members of Congress, mayors, governors, some of whom are up for reelection, “we extend these invitations for policy discussions, not as partisan political activities,” according to a spokesman.

When former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty asked the Cato Institute to host his first policy speech in May, Cato took some precautions. Pawlenty was restricted to a policy address, no media questions were permitted and the audience could ask only policy-relevant questions. After the speech, Pawlenty spoke to reporters out on the sidewalk.

At the time, Cato Executive Vice President David Boaz said his organization was “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 said it would not host a debate just for one party.

“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 H. Andrew Schwartz, a senior vice president for external relations.

The question is whether Tuesday’s debate, because it is designed to help Americans decide which Republican should go up against President Obama, a Democrat, is inherently a partisan event, despite steps the think tanks may take to make the debate as fair as possible.

“Most think tanks are only nonpartisan with a wink and a nod,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. “It’s a problem that says more about our tax code than it does the debate.”

The IRS code allows nonprofit organizations to host political debates as long as all reasonably qualified candidates are invited, questions do not favor one candidate, a range of issues is covered, all candidates get equal time and the moderator does not editorialize.

“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 given easier questions, or if other things “suggest a level of coordination” to help one candidate over others.

But Mike Gonzales, Heritage vice president for communications, said the difficulty of questions will not be an issue since Blitzer will determine which candidates receive the questions posed by the think tank scholars.

Pletka said viewers “will just have to watch and see for themselves” whether the debate is fair. “Ultimately, it’s our credibility and reputation on the line, and that’s very important to us.”