You’ll have to read the whole thing to see exactly how DeMint disrupted Heritage, but here’s a brief snippet:
Even the most generous assessment of DeMint’s record at Heritage would conclude that he has produced mixed results. Within the first year of DeMint’s tenure, several respected senior researchers left the policy shop, including the heads of its Center for Data Analysis, Center for Policy Innovation, and senior national security scholars. More problematic, however, was Heritage’s missteps in its research….Even if Heritage’s intellectual reputation is not what it once was, its influence remains. The two areas where Heritage improved its Global Go To Think Tank Index ranking dramatically after DeMint’s first three years were in “best advocacy campaign” and “most significant impact on public policy.”…. Despite backbiting about Heritage Action, its influence was large enough to entice most of the 2016 GOP presidential candidates to attend their September 2015 Take Back America candidate forum. It is the Washington think tank most closely associated with the Trump administration.
At the time of DeMint’s move to Heritage, no one on the left, right or center thought of him as a policy intellectual. But when Heritage hired him, the idea was to make the think tank more politically potent. By betting long odds on Trump, he succeeded; Heritage has easily been the most influential think tank in the Trump era.
Which makes this news originally broken by Politico last Friday all the more surprising:
The controversial president of The Heritage Foundation, former Sen. Jim DeMint, will soon be out of a job, following a dispute with board members about the direction of conservative think tank, according to three people with knowledge of the situation.Some Heritage board members believe that DeMint has brought in too many Senate allies and made the think tank too bombastic and political — to the detriment of its research and scholarly aims….Former Heritage president Ed Feulner is expected to take over as interim president, according to one House Freedom Caucus member. Feulner did not respond to requests for comment.
That might be what Politico’s reporters heard but the New York Times’ Jeremy Peters and Maggie Haberman heard something rather different:
Mr. DeMint’s abrupt ouster, described by people as a “coup” against him, was the result of a larger debate among conservative donors who fund the group. One of its board members is Rebekah Mercer, a reclusive donor who has helped propel the White House chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, in his effort to dismantle aspects of the political establishment.Ms. Mercer was described by people with knowledge of the events as helping drive the effort toward a shake-up. Another person close to the discussions, who asked not to be identified, said that Mr. DeMint was not seen as sufficiently pro-Trump by some members of the board.
Now this last part is genuinely odd. It’s true that Heritage Action opposed the Trump-supported American Health Care Act (AHCA) in March, but it looked like that fence had been mended. Indeed, this story broke on the same day that Trump publicly thanked DeMint and Heritage, saying, “from Heritage, Jim DeMint — it’s been amazing. I mean, those people have been fantastic. They’ve been real friends.”
Nonetheless, Mercer’s prominence in think tank world and on Heritage’s board has some people questioning whether Bannon himself would be the eventual replacement for DeMint, as the Washington Examiner’s Philip Wegmann notes:
Will blistering populist Steve Bannon replace fiery conservative Sen. Jim DeMint as the next president of the Heritage Foundation? Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham won’t say.Asked by Chris Wallace whether Heritage would be Bannon’s “safety net as he’s forced out of the White House,” Needham demurred on “Fox News Sunday.” “I can tell you,” Needham replied, “there’s a lot of speculation in the room and in the media that never misses a chance to divide and attack conservatives.”….During the entire putsch, Heritage employees have been left in the dark. Many didn’t learn that DeMint was being pushed out until Politico published the story Friday afternoon. And as DeMint loyalists clean out their desks and after one board member, Todd Herrick, resigned in protest, Heritage has still issued no official statement.
So which is it: Heritage’s board was disenchanted with the erosion of Heritage’s intellectual output, or Trumpistas were furious with DeMint’s failure to be sufficiently friendly to Trump?
Color me skeptical of these narratives. Heritage’s intellectual decline was apparent two years ago, so it’s strange that it would come up now. And even if DeMint broke with Trump on AHCA, Heritage remained by far the most Trump-friendly think tank inside the Beltway. And I can’t see any of Heritage’s board members not named “Mercer” being okay with Bannon taking over. Both of these explanations might be responsible for some grumbling, but it’s a weird coalition.
No, what rings most true is the notion that this is a personal struggle between DeMint and Needham. According to Wegmann:
While both men tend to agree on ideology, they disagree on method. A senior policy expert complained that DeMint wanted to remake Heritage in his own image, pointing to the policy services and outreach department as well as the organization’s media arm, the Daily Signal [where Wegmann used to work].“Basically he treated the place like it was his giant Senate office,” the policy expert said. “That ended up being a significant departure from the vision set out by the board and Feulner.”While Needham helped bring DeMint to Heritage in 2013, their relationship began to fray during the presidential election. It reached a breaking point, two separate sources confirmed, after DeMint suggested making major changes to Heritage Action or abolishing it altogether.
John Hart tells a similar tale in Forbes. Another source with ties to Heritage Action explained to me that the differences between Needham and DeMint doomed the latter. Needham had placed key allies into the staffs of several House Freedom Caucus members. DeMint, on the other hand, was more aloof:
[DeMint] left the Senate because he didn’t have any friends and didn’t develop relationships on the Hill as Heritage president. When push came to shove and Heritage wanted a bill passed, who would take DeMint’s phone call? Contrast that with Needham who was responsible for getting [Freedom Caucus] staffers jobs in DC. Other than raising money, what does DeMint offer that Needham doesn’t?
The idea is that after a decent interval, Needham will replace Feulner. They were the co-creators of Heritage Action, so it would not be surprising to see such a transition.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts likes to draw deeper meanings from headline changes in the marketplace of ideas. In this case, however, I don’t think this is about Heritage’s board having an attack of intellectual conscience or thinking that DeMint was insufficiently loyal to Trump. This appears to be a simple case of one political player being better at the game than another.
If it’s true, however, then the outcome will not be a return to the Heritage Foundation of old. If Needham winds up running the think tank, the result will be the current incarnation on steroids. Which means that Heritage will likely continue to hemorrhage competent policy wonks but continue to exercise real influence through its ties to the House Freedom Caucus and the Trump administration.
That’s one hell of a tradeoff.