The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Heritage Foundation, former powerhouse of GOP policy, adjusts in face of new competition from Trump allies

‘People do not walk around in fear of the Heritage Foundation the way they did 10 years ago,’ one conservative expert said

The Heritage Foundation, a think tank with influence over prior GOP presidential administrations, faces competition from Trump-inspired upstarts. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)
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The Heritage Foundation has long shaped mainstream Republican policy in Washington. It drafted much of Ronald Reagan’s agenda to slash federal spending and launched a ferocious campaign to repeal Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

But in recent months, the venerable think tank in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol has revamped its leadership after its former president, Kay Coles James, was subject to a torrent of criticism from a prominent conservative cable host. Heritage replaced James with a Texas firebrand more determined to fight pandemic restrictions, critical race theory in schools, and “teaching transgenderism to kindergartners,” bending the institution toward issues that have resonated with former president Donald Trump and his allies.

The leadership changes mark a retreat from traditional but stodgy fiscal and foreign policy issues in favor of the hot-button education and vaccine debates that increasingly define the Republican Party in the era of Trump. The change also comes as Heritage is struggling to compete for right-wing dollars while new think tanks are cropping up around town, including several launched by such Trump acolytes as former White House budget chief Russ Vought and top domestic policy aide Brooke Rollins.

Under James, who led Heritage until last year, the foundation clashed with Trump allies over the killing of George Floyd, policies toward Big Tech, and the massive explosion of federal spending under Trump. Frequently attacked by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, James announced in March that she soon would be stepping down. The new director, Kevin Roberts, most recently led the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. He told the Heritage news organization, the Daily Signal, that his top three priorities at Heritage are “education, education, and education.”

Q&A with Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts

The change at the top also more closely aligns the leadership of the Heritage Foundation with the views of several members of its board of trustees, who believed that James had not moved aggressively enough to position Heritage as opposed to coronavirus-related government restrictions at the outset of the pandemic, according to four people with direct knowledge of the matter.

“Shouting out Reagan platitudes in 2020 is not what you want to hear, and Kevin gets all that,” said one conservative strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss the situation.

In an interview, Roberts strongly disputed that Heritage would be less focused on economic and fiscal issues, pointing to existing and upcoming work with GOP lawmakers on that topic.

Rob Bluey, Heritage’s chief spokesman, said James’s decision to leave her post in 2021 was “totally her choice.” A spokesman for James, who now serves in the Cabinet of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and remains a Heritage trustee, did not respond to requests for comment.

Heritage Foundation board ousts president Jim DeMint

Heritage’s sway over the Republican Party has dramatically weakened, in part because of how Trump changed the party.

The coronavirus also proved a divisive force within the building. In the early days of the pandemic in spring 2020, Heritage leadership under James rejected an article from one of its scholars denouncing government restrictions, two people with knowledge of the matter said. Heritage’s offices stayed closed for about three months, and signs urging masking became something of a joke for many conservatives who mocked the concept.

“Heritage came around to opposing the lockdowns later, but at the beginning the idea was, ‘Let’s not attack lockdowns,’ ” one person familiar with the matter said. “It was very controversial inside the building.”

By contrast, under the leadership of Roberts, the Texas Public Policy Foundation reopened two weeks after the coronavirus first hit. Roberts said he was one of the most outspoken members of Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R-Tex.) pandemic “state strike force” in pushing for an end to coronavirus-related restrictions. By April 3, 2020, the Texas Public Policy Foundation was already warning that the isolation orders were far more dangerous than the pandemic.

“I was among the most outspoken that the shutdowns were awful — that they were worse than the disease itself,” Roberts told The Washington Post in an interview. “And I am sorry to report that I was 100 percent right.”

Bluey said in an email to The Post that the institution “has consistently opposed government lockdowns,” pointing to a set of April 2020 recommendations that said state and local leaders should quickly reopen businesses and schools “except in communities where an outbreak is occurring or believed to be imminent.” Later Heritage reports criticized a model used to justify coronavirus restrictions and focused on their economic consequences.

Roberts’s opinion is widely shared among conservative cable news hosts and many Republican politicians. The pandemic has killed more than 900,000 Americans.

Heritage now finds itself trying to catch up after watching some of its core tenets become shredded during Trump’s tenure.

Even as Heritage staffers cycled into the federal government to staff the Trump administration, the think tank found itself repeatedly at odds with then-President Trump’s allies. Heritage officials have long decried big government deficits, but Trump added nearly $8 trillion to the national debt, the most by any president. Trump also imposed enormously controversial tariffs on foreign countries, while Heritage has long advocated free trade. Trump took direct aim at the Silicon Valley giants who donate heavily to conservative causes, and Heritage experts criticized Trump’s attacks on China.

Carlson, a Trump ally and arguably the most influential conservative voice in the country, often led the charge. In 2019, Carlson said Heritage “no longer represents the interest of conservatives, at least on the question of tech,” and criticized a Heritage report that rejected government intervention that would punish tech companies for removing conservative speech.

In 2020, Carlson included James in a roundup of conservative leaders who “joined the left’s chorus” in not strongly enough denouncing violence and property destruction at protests of the murder of George Floyd. James, who is Black, wrote an op-ed for the Fox News website in May 2020 saying that she does “not condone the violence spreading across this country in response to Floyd’s horrific killing.” She also condemned the “ugly racism that stains our nation’s history and afflicts us like a cancer of the soul.”

Carlson called the op-ed a “long screed denouncing America as an irredeemably racist nation,” and he urged Heritage donors to direct their dollars elsewhere.

In August 2021, months after James had announced her resignation, Carlson aired a segment accusing Heritage of taking money from powerful tech companies, a claim the group called “patently false,” citing James’s rejection of Facebook and Google donations in 2020.

“We agree with Tucker Carlson on many issues, including his concerns about Big Tech,” Bluey said, adding that the think tank applauds Carlson “for his pursuit of the truth when so many others are afraid to ask tough questions.” Carlson declined to comment.

Heritage’s evolution comes after former top Trump aides started rival think tanks competing for conservative dollars.

Vought, the former budget chief in the Trump White House, started a group called the Center for Renewing America, which is focused on opposing voter fraud, Big Tech and critical race theory.

Another former senior Trump official, Brooke Rollins, launched the America First Policy Institute with former Trump senior aides Larry Kudlow, Chad Wolf and Linda McMahon. Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff, joined the Conservative Partnership Institute started by former Heritage president Jim DeMint, after leaving the administration. One former Trump official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly describe the state of the party, said the “red meat” among Republicans is now issues such as school choice and opposing vaccine mandates, with the economic issues that Heritage used to focus on existing in a second tier.

Heritage’s biggest name among former Trump officials is former vice president Mike Pence, now reviled within the Trump wing of the GOP for his refusal to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

“People do not walk around in fear of the Heritage Foundation the way they did 10 years ago,” said Avik Roy, a former health-care policy adviser to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and the president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, a think tank. “Heritage’s model, or self-conception, is that it gets to define what is conservative and everyone else has to fall in line. Particularly if you think about how Trump disrupted what it means to be a conservative, Heritage is no longer in a position to be a party-line enforcer.”

Added Jane Calderwood, who served as chief of staff to former senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), of Heritage: “They were a big player, and anything they said was considered gospel by certain people. … Now it’s just whatever Trump wants, he gets.”

Roberts, the new Heritage president, downplayed these challenges in an interview and stressed that he and other Heritage officials are in close communication with senior GOP officials in crafting the party’s agenda. A spokesman for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the House GOP minority leader, said Heritage remains involved with McCarthy’s office on policy and on oversight measures related to the Biden administration.

The think tank is positioning itself to play a key role in the emerging flash points for the party. Roberts has made clear in several interviews that he views cultural questions — including over education and critical race theory — as top priorities. He has talked critically of Silicon Valley, after Carlson chastised James for being allegedly too soft on Big Tech. He has defined a “movement conservative” as someone who opposes same-sex marriage. “There’s another group of conservatives who are not movement conservatives, because they are weak and wrong on the social issues. Marriage, transgender stuff,” Roberts said.

Roberts insisted that economic policy remains “crucial” to the think tank’s mission and said that he was personally involved in crafting an economic blueprint likely to be released soon.

“Those are tensions inside the movement, and to the extent that Heritage reflects the movement, yeah, we have those tensions. But there’s a whole series of worse situations than the word ‘tension,’ ” Roberts said. “I believe in creative conflict.”

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