Meet the Newer, Softer Heritage Action for America

The conservative group isn’t moderating its principles, but it is focusing more on reform over opposition in the new year.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 06: U.S. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) talks on the phone in his office December 6, 2012 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Senator DeMint announced today that he will resign from the Senate to become the president of the Heritage Foundation. 
National Journal
Jan. 13, 2015, midnight

Her­it­age Ac­tion for Amer­ica spent the past two years as an ob­struc­tion­ist force with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party, hop­ing to pull the party to the right through a string of con­front­a­tions. But now, with Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning Con­gress, the group is chan­ging its strategy to­ward a policy push, ad­voc­at­ing an eco­nom­ic agenda aimed at ap­peal­ing to middle-class voters. The ra­tionale be­hind the shift comes from an un­der­stand­ing that con­struct­ive policy ideas sell bet­ter than in­stinct­ive op­pos­i­tion—even if Her­it­age Ac­tion’s favored pre­scrip­tions are more con­ser­vat­ive than what many party of­fi­cials sup­port.

While the con­ser­vat­ive group makes no apo­lo­gies for its fights with party lead­ers, it is em­bra­cing ideas from the party’s in­tel­lec­tu­al wing—ran­ging from Rep. Paul Ry­an to New York Times colum­nist Ross Douthat. In an art­icle pub­lished in the winter is­sue of Na­tion­al Af­fairs, Her­it­age Ac­tion for Amer­ica CEO Mike Need­ham ap­prov­ingly cites Douthat’s and Reihan Salam’s re­cent book Grand New Party for ac­know­ledging that mod­ern-day con­ser­vat­ism struggles to of­fer policies that would be­ne­fit non­col­lege-edu­cated, blue-col­lar, “Sam’s Club” voters. And he cred­its Ry­an with build­ing a GOP con­sensus on con­tro­ver­sial is­sues such as Medi­care premi­um sup­port. Need­ham’s art­icle also singles out Sens. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida and Mike Lee of Utah for praise, call­ing them among the “most in­nov­at­ive policy en­tre­pren­eurs among con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans.”

“To many re­form-minded ob­serv­ers eager to help the Re­pub­lic­an Party build a man­date for a con­ser­vat­ive gov­ern­ing agenda, this dis­cord ap­pears point­less and coun­ter­pro­duct­ive, un­der­min­ing Re­pub­lic­an ef­forts to pro­ject the stead­i­ness needed to gov­ern while ac­com­plish­ing little to im­prove the like­li­hood of fu­ture con­ser­vat­ive policy vic­tor­ies,” Need­ham wrote. “Uni­fied Re­pub­lic­an con­trol of the Con­gress now presents an op­por­tun­ity for a re­set, per­haps mak­ing pos­sible a fresh start for col­lab­or­a­tion between the grass­roots and the Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship that has long been re­luct­ant to gov­ern from one house of Con­gress.”

The piece pre­viewed this week’s Her­it­age Ac­tion for Amer­ica policy sum­mit, with its mes­sage titled: “Op­por­tun­ity for All, Fa­vor­it­ism To­wards None.” While the two-day con­fer­ence is fea­tur­ing red-meat speeches from the likes of Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Tom Cot­ton, its fo­cus was on ad­voc­at­ing the “re­form con­ser­vat­ive move­ment.” In kick­ing off the event, Her­it­age Pres­id­ent Jim De­Mint said the pur­pose of the con­fer­ence was to “show Amer­ic­ans how our ideas and policies will make their life bet­ter and coun­try stronger.” In his speech, House Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Tom Price em­phas­ized one of his goals in the up­com­ing year is to “nor­mal­ize the de­bate on con­tro­ver­sial is­sues” that Her­it­age ad­voc­ates.

“They’re try­ing to come up with af­firm­at­ive ways to show they care about middle-class voters while stick­ing to their prin­ciples, and aren’t just fo­cus­ing on cuts to the so­cial safety net,” said one Re­pub­lic­an strategist with ties to an out­side con­ser­vat­ive group. “It’s part of this de­bate that Paul Ry­an has ar­tic­u­lated that’s hap­pen­ing with­in the party—where you can’t just be for re­form­ing so­cial wel­fare without be­ing in fa­vor of re­form­ing cor­por­ate wel­fare.”

The big ques­tion is wheth­er the shift in tone from Her­it­age Ac­tion is more about rebrand­ing its im­age, or a sub­stant­ive shift.

Her­it­age Ac­tion lead­ers make no apo­lo­gies for their past ag­gress­ive tac­tics, with Need­ham writ­ing in his piece that they were “cru­cial in­ter­me­di­ate steps to­ward the long-term goal of le­gis­lat­ing that are of­ten ig­nored by those who give the es­tab­lish­ment the be­ne­fit of the doubt.” But that ac­ri­mony led to some very pub­lic, nasty dis­putes—most not­ably, when the con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee barred Her­it­age Found­a­tion em­ploy­ees from at­tend­ing its weekly meet­ings in the Cap­it­ol amid dis­agree­ment over ex­tend­ing the farm bill. Now, with a grow­ing roster of like-minded sen­at­ors in the GOP caucus, many re­cog­nize that it’s im­port­ant to get bey­ond the in­fight­ing and em­brace le­gis­la­tion that both fac­tions can agree on.

And while Her­it­age pri­or­it­izes prin­ciple over polit­ics, the polit­ic­al winds have shif­ted markedly from the first Re­pub­lic­an wave elec­tion in 2010. That Novem­ber, voters in the NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll were nearly split on wheth­er they pre­ferred their rep­res­ent­at­ives to make com­prom­ises or stick to their cam­paign po­s­i­tions. They nar­rowly favored com­prom­ise, 47 per­cent to 43 per­cent. But in last Novem­ber’s sur­vey, 63 per­cent sup­por­ted com­prom­ise, while just 31 per­cent wanted their lead­ers to stick to prin­ciples. To gain wide­spread sup­port bey­ond its amen corner, Her­it­age must reach out to the many dis­af­fected voters—even those who aren’t on the front lines of con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ism.

“[Con­gress is] not speak­ing to the real anxi­et­ies of most Amer­ic­ans. There’s nobody across the coun­try that’s ever heard of TRIA, but one of the biggest fight in Wash­ing­ton over the last six weeks is wheth­er TRIA [Ter­ror­ism Risk In­sur­ance Act] gets ex­ten­ded,” Need­ham told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “What a lot of Amer­ic­ans are look­ing for is a genu­ine agenda that speaks to the anxi­et­ies they have, and that’s a tough thing for Wash­ing­ton to de­liv­er be­cause it’s not what K Street’s ask­ing for.”

Not­ably, while much of the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment gets painted in one broad brush, there are small but im­port­ant dif­fer­ences between the act­iv­ism of groups such as Her­it­age Ac­tion for Amer­ica and the anti-tax Club for Growth. The Club for Growth re­ceives most of its fund­ing from deep-pock­eted donors, who aren’t par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in tweak­ing the tax code to achieve con­ser­vat­ive ends. Her­it­age Ac­tion for Amer­ica gets a lar­ger share from small, less-wealthy donors, (44 per­cent of dona­tions un­der $5000, ac­cord­ing to its 2012 re­turn), who are more re­cept­ive to con­ser­vat­ive policies geared to­ward work­ing-class Amer­ic­ans.

The group’s sup­port­ers are not ne­ces­sar­ily on board with Jeb Bush’s spe­cif­ic pre­scrip­tions on, say, edu­ca­tion re­form, but they’re in sync with the need to tackle policy changes on bread-and-but­ter is­sues that av­er­age Amer­ic­ans re­late to. Re­du­cing the fed­er­al role in edu­ca­tion may not be em­braced by many lead­ing con­ser­vat­ive re­formers, but as Reihan Salam points out in Slate, it could be a polit­ic­ally po­tent mes­sage cap­it­al­iz­ing on anxi­ety over how some fed­er­al stand­ards lim­it flex­ib­il­ity for loc­al schools. One bill cham­pioned by Her­it­age—the HERO Act sponsored by Lee—would make it easi­er for states to ac­cred­it on­line edu­ca­tion­al courses, pro­mot­ing more choice and flex­ib­il­ity for stu­dents.

While most of the polit­ic­al at­ten­tion is on the de­vel­op­ing 2016 pres­id­en­tial field, the most con­sequen­tial ac­tion in 2015 will be tak­ing place with­in the newly GOP-con­trolled Con­gress. Next year’s pres­id­en­tial primar­ies will fea­ture a show­down between the lead­ing ad­voc­ates of the es­tab­lish­ment wing’s pref­er­ence to use gov­ern­ment to im­prove policy out­comes and the tea party’s de­sire to re­duce gov­ern­ment, peri­od. But there’s a third way emer­ging: ad­voc­at­ing con­ser­vat­ive re­forms that ap­peal to work­ing-class voters more than cor­por­ate in­terests. Ex­pect the Her­it­age Found­a­tion to be on the fore­front of that fight—and its suc­cess in Con­gress will go a long way in de­term­in­ing the move­ment’s long-term clout.

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