When Republican Jim DeMint announced last week that he will leave the Senate to run the Heritage Foundation, empirically minded Washingtonians worried that the self-described “Senator No” would shove the conservative think tank into tea party territory, wrecking its credibility and shifting its mandate from policy research to political activism. “It is the scholarly equivalent of appointing Michael Moore to head the Brookings Institution,” Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post. DeMint promised to support the organization’s research, but it seemed hard to believe that the former marketing executive—who made his mark in the Senate by obstructing legislation and recruiting tea party candidates—could steer an intellectually honest scholarly enterprise.
The Heritage Foundation, however, has always been devoted to marketing as a policy innovation. In recent years, it launched a political-action arm that airs ads in congressional districts—and demands conservative conformity from members of Congress through a tough and unpopular grading system. It repudiated one of its own signature policy ideas—the individual mandate at the heart of the Massachusetts health care law that its scholars helped create—and the national analogue, Obamacare. And it moved several of its most senior and respected scholars out of policy departments and into a section described as “a think tank within a think tank,” because evidently the organization’s core was not the right place for innovative analysis. As the advocacy field has grown more crowded and the think-tank culture more political, Heritage has already excelled in an arena where DeMint reigns supreme.
The South Carolinian’s view is that the old forms of think-tank advocacy aren’t enough to drive the D.C. policy discussion anymore. An organization like Heritage needs the best proposals, DeMint says, but it also needs to generate grassroots pressure that will push elected officials to pursue them. “People up here aren’t going to vote for anything because it’s a good idea and it’s best for our country,” he says, wearing a tie emblazoned with the Heritage logo during an interview in his Senate office. “Everything here is outside in. The only thing that’s going to move here is because outside interests are pushing it.”
Several people across the research field described Heritage’s recent strategy in similar terms. In the country’s partisan climate, Heritage must promote its ideas both inside and outside of Washington through its political-advocacy wing, says Lee Edwards, the foundation’s distinguished fellow in conservative thought. Heritage was once famous for eschewing book-length papers in favor of briefs short enough for members of Congress to read during the walk from their offices to the Capitol for a vote. (Today, just about every think tank apes that style.) Now it has decided that outreach to government officials is not enough to be truly influential. Because the political climate is “colder to some of the ideas we have,” the foundation must “go out there in the grassroots,” says Edwards, who describes himself as the organization’s historian.
Heritage Action for America, a 501(c)(4) sister organization, opened in 2010 to function as “the fangs” for the Heritage beast, its top officials wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed announcing the launch. Its strict congressional rating system, which tracks procedural votes, has rankled many Hill offices and given dozens of Republican House members scores in the 40s and 50s out of 100. It advertises its legislative priorities on radio talk shows. And it used issue ads in congressional districts during the campaign to flay squishy Republicans. (Of the seven members it targeted, two lost their primaries.) Heritage once wanted to “be on the playing field and move the ball,” says a GOP Senate aide who asked to remain anonymous. Now “they don’t concede the playing field.”
Heritage is not the only think tank to emphasize direct political advocacy. On the left, the Center for American Progress also employs a policy shop and a political-action group. CAP has even created its own news organization to work outside of the usual marketing channels. The new think-tank/political-action combo has its own nickname: the advocacy tank. And many smaller policy shops, PACs, super PACs, and partisan media try to advance policy ideas and influence lawmakers. “Think tanks have to change—there’s just too much noise in the system,” says Republican PR executive Keith Appell, who applauded the DeMint selection. “It’s a new reality, given all the different communication sources that are bombarding the public.”
The rise of outside pressure groups is so dramatic that DeMint now thinks he will have more power to advance his agenda at Heritage than he can as a U.S. senator. It’s a shock for congressional veterans. “Congress should be the place where the thinking should be done and the solving of problems should occur,” former Sen. John Breaux says with rue. “There’s no better place to influence legislation than in the legislature.”
DeMint, who told the Heritage staff last week that he was inspired to run for office by the foundation’s position papers, says he won’t discourage scholars from going where the research takes them. “If ever you compromise your research, one time, then no one ever believes you again,” he reassures. “My goal is to protect the research and policy people from the politics.”
But he wants to make sure Heritage produces work that shapes his party. As Mike Franc, the vice president of government studies at Heritage, notes, “It’s not as if we’ve tried to hide our value system.” Ultimately, DeMint says, he is leaving the Senate because he is tired of always saying no to the insufficiently conservative proposals of his GOP colleagues.
This article appears in the Dec. 15, 2012, edition of National Journal as Duck in Water.