Opinion: Where the Heritage Foundation, and conservatism, went wrong

Jim DeMint, then president of the Heritage Foundation, speaks during the RedState Gathering in Atlanta, August 2015. (AJC Photo / Hyosub Shin)

Above the space where my columns appear in print are three words: “From the Right.” In my experience, most conservatives writers started as one of two types: “movement conservatives” who adopted journalism as their platform, or trained journalists who had conservative instincts but weren’t necessarily steeped in the right’s intellectual underpinnings.

I’m in the second group, and it would be hard to overstate how much the Heritage Foundation helped me build my knowledge base since I got into opinion writing more than 12 years ago (along with the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and, locally, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation). I’ve quoted or studied Heritage experts on issues from taxes to trade, from welfare reform to the decline of the family. Their focus on ideas over the politics of the moment is one reason American conservatism, like any good political philosophy, has maintained coherence and consistency over time.

So I’ve watched with sadness in more recent years as Heritage has drifted away from the long time horizon and toward the temporal. Reportedly, that drift drove this week’s ouster of its president, ex-U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint. Depending on whose account you believe, his forced resignation is either the antidote to Heritage’s politicization or a prelude to even more of it. For the sake of America’s political thought and debate, I hope it’s the former.

It’s worth pausing here to appraise the state of conservatism more generally. The term “conservative” suffers from a curious problem: too much appeal. Hence, opportunistic politicians adopt it as a label without knowing much about what it means and why; one needn’t look any further than many members of the Georgia Legislature. Likewise, hucksters use the term as bait to coax money out of earnest folks.

And so conservatism has come to include whatever the opportunists and hucksters need it to mean at the moment. Which is another way of saying that, more and more, it means nothing.

The reaction to this development has wrought a different problem, which brings us back to Heritage’s waywardness.

The problem of politicians who got elected as conservatives but governed otherwise fueled all sorts of candidate pledges and scorecards. These may have been useful once, but over time they became purity tests and cudgels for whacking anyone who supported anything less than a 100 percent victory, anytime. Or, if necessary to keep an issue alive — and the checks rolling in — anything less than a 110 percent victory.

Here it’s worth noting that both left and right play this game. On any given issue, an array of groups on both sides have every financial incentive to hold an absolutist line rather than working toward a solution. For if lawmakers were to solve, say, the problem of illegal immigration, what would happen to those groups — and the paychecks of those who work for them?

Heritage got in this game with its political arm, Heritage Action. DeMint did not start that effort; it preceded him at Heritage by three years. Nor did he even run Heritage Action; that’s a former political operative named Michael Needham. But because DeMint had a political background, rather than an academic one, he was synonymous in many people’s minds with the new, heavy-handed tactics Heritage Action toward members of Congress, always demanding 100, or 110, percent.

Frustrated conservatives have cheered on such efforts in part because they misread history. American law and policy for the most part have not moved leftward in leaps and bounds such as Obamacare, but with gradually corrosive changes that lay the groundwork for a law like Obamacare — such as the slow choking of the health-insurance market with myriad regulations. Somehow, the “conservative” answer always seems to be going for broke rather than retaking the ground available at the time, securing it, then aiming for the next bit of turf. That’s the biggest reason why, so far this year, repealing and replacing Obamacare has not moved forward. Republicans can’t agree on the whole thing, and groups like Heritage Action won’t let them get away with moving forward on only the parts they do agree on.

It’s easy to get caught up in this kind of thinking, and one probably wouldn’t have to look too far into my archives to find a piece in which I did what I’m now lamenting. But that’s exactly why we need groups like Heritage to maintain the long view and produce policy ideas in both large and small bites, so conservative statesmen (and writers) don’t have to choose between purity and practicality. It’s not a question of picking either relevance or ivory tower-ism; the irony here is Heritage and DeMint came to this impasse right as the think tank had won the ear of a president, because it had lost the respect of too many legislators.

Rather, it’s a matter of maintaining a true north while acknowledging the hiker may have to dodge the occasional roadblock or pitfall along the way. When everyone instead tries to tell him where exactly to step next, they shouldn’t be surprised when he stops moving altogether.

Reader Comments 0

101 comments
breckenridge
breckenridge

O'Reilly has a new internet radio show. If you sign up in the next 20 minutes you might get a free pizza or something.

breckenridge
breckenridge

Good column by Kyle. I've heard the "only (insert name here) can save America" mantra so many times - the go for broke or we're doomed theme - so many times that I'm 100% inured to it, and just pass it off as another raving loony tune.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

Truly amazing well, not so amazing but a recent example of the Democrat party's degeneration is how Hillary Clinton, can without shame blame Comey, for her loss. The FBI finds thousands of email's in Comey's words that Huma Abedin, forwarded to her husband's server, some of it classified. Now who must share with Abedin, the blame? Bingo, Hillary Clinton, Abedin's boss. The equally shameless Democrat party is also complicit because they nominated this woman and deserved to lose this past November.

JohnnyReb
JohnnyReb

@SGTGrit

Yes, and there is a sailor in jail today for simply sending his family a selfie that included the control panel of the submarine where he was working.

Yet Hillary and company are free birds.

BuckeyeGa
BuckeyeGa

Clinton lost..everyone needs to move on

breckenridge
breckenridge

Planned Parenthood will continue to be funded in new budget. The politician most responsible for getting PP funded in the first place, George H W Bush, is likely pleased. And the other two politicians that were instrumental in PP funding, Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater, would also be pleased if they were still around.


All three of the above are or were republicans.  But that was back when common sense still played a part in the party, long before the GOP was taken over by a bunch of nut-bar religious fanatics who insist the Bible is inerrant.........well, at least they insist the Bible is inerrant when it serves their purposes.

JohnnyReb
JohnnyReb

@breckenridge

The budget bill only funds until September, but celebrate while you can as losing will return soon.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@breckenridge @SGTGrit  Usually when I ask you this question we don't hear from you for the rest of the day, so I'll ask again. When, Where and How did you serve the country?

JohnnyReb
JohnnyReb

Nate Silver has a piece out stating Comey likely cost Hillary the election.

BS

Hillary Clinton's actions long before anyone knew of her private server cost her the election.

It was not Comey who setup her private server.

It was not Comey who repeatedly lied about it.

It was not Comey who had Bill Clinton meet with Loretta Lynch on her airplane when Hillary's butt was in the fire over the controversy.

Regardless of that, I suggest most voters had their mind made up long before Comey did his job.

This whole propaganda move by the Clinton's is face saving while trying to give the Dem base something on which to cling.

The Clinton's want to stay relevant, they don't know how to live without mooching off the public.

Eye wonder
Eye wonder

@JohnnyReb

Face it, JohnnyRacist - your fuhrer is utterly despised and the most illegitimate president in US history.

JohnnyReb
JohnnyReb

@Eye wonder @JohnnyReb

You people become soooo tiresome.

Your perception of Trump being despised and illegitimate is, in reality, only those who did not vote for Trump and would not.

The recent poll showed only 2% who voted for Trump would not today.

And, if the election was held today Trump would get more popular votes than the Hildabeast.

How does it feel to have the LibProg propaganda machine yanking your chains?

DownInAlbany
DownInAlbany

@JohnnyReb  Three actions cost Hillary the WH, which was hers' to lose....1) making her campaign all about Trump, 2) the Deplorable speech 3) the "I should be 50 points ahead" commercial. I doubt that Comey lost her any votes.  Folks had made up their minds by then, imo.

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@JohnnyReb Comey didn't prevent her from campaigning in MI or Wisc either or didn't prevent her from developing an economic message other than stay the course.

JohnnyReb
JohnnyReb

Americans are stupid.

Preexisting condition coverage is not insurance.

It's welfare

Congress should have the balls to call it what it is.

They insult those of us who keep up by trying to flim flam us calling it insurance.

Get it off on its own.

Remove the mandates, for example a 70 yr old guy having to pay for maternity coverage.

Remove the free stuff like birth control.

Move on

breckenridge
breckenridge

@JohnnyReb 

Covering a preexisting condition is welfare? 

Getting rid of free birth control is fiscally responsible?

You are way, way out there today.  More so than usual.

BuckeyeGa
BuckeyeGa

interesting definition of welfare..

JohnnyReb
JohnnyReb

The Healthcare Bill in the Senate is the perfect opportunity for Repubs to change the rules to requiring only a simple majority vote.

It's a perfect strategy....Repubs benefited from it when Obama was in office, but Dems will make the change when they are back in control.

Repubs should do it now and get all the work done on the Trump agenda.

I can see it now....LibProg heads exploding every day.

They could charge for tickets to the Senate gallery.

Infraredguy
Infraredguy

The Left is really worried that some of Trump's changes may end up being liked by the majority of Americans and they have their panties in a wad trying to demonize everything he says

RoadScholar
RoadScholar

"Hence, opportunistic politicians adopt it as a label without knowing much about what it means and why;.."

The Trump dictionary and history books....if he ever used them.


So Kyle you are against healthcare for all citizens; what rank do you have in the death squads?

Infraredguy
Infraredguy

@RoadScholar Another stupid statement by a left wing nut, is this all you have to offer,  the same old Democratic  Party line?

Infraredguy
Infraredguy

@Visual_Cortex Tell me again how great the Obamacare health plan is and how it is saving every family 2,500 dollars a year in premiums plus bringing those families more choices not less 

Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

@Infraredguy @RoadScholar

If you'd been paying attention, you'd already know the answers. 

If you actually care and want to start paying attention, you could learn that there are short-term, mid-term, and long-term fixes.

There really isn't space here to detail them.

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@Visual_Cortex @Infraredguy It will lower premiums for 95% of the insured.  You'd think that would be good, but the Dems are determined that the majority, many of which are the youth should get fleeced, in order to make the insurance companies more profitable and the 5% of us with PE conditions get below market rate insurance.

furzalar
furzalar

my best friend's aunt makes 90 an hour on the internet.. she's been fired from a job for ten months.. last month her paycheck was 13243 only working on the internet for a couple of hours a day..

 check this site

http://tinyurl.com/h5sn2n9



BTC
BTC

@furzalar But what does she think about the Republicants efforts to repeal and replace?

BuckeyeGa
BuckeyeGa

On any given issue, an array of groups on both sides have every financial incentive to hold an absolutist line rather than working toward a solution. ........................................Very true...good work Kyle..

bu22
bu22

@BuckeyeGa Computers and the precision of gerrymandering by both sides has increased the extremism.  They only have to win their party's part of the electorate to be elected.

jhgm63
jhgm63

Interesting that you left out the part about Obamacare having its birth within the Heritage Foundation.

breckenridge
breckenridge

May 3 - President Trump is set to sign an executive order Thursday to make it easier to for churches and other religious groups to participate in politics without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.

Trump plans to sign an order in the morning that attempts to overcome a provision in the federal tax code prohibiting religious organizations from directly opposing or endorsing political candidates. 


Easing restrictions on church political activity has been a longtime priority for Trump, social conservatives and a number of congressional Republicans. They argue the Johnson amendment stifles churches’ First Amendment rights.

Goddam Donald Trump and every social conservative right straight to hell.

Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

@breckenridge

It's not like churches weren't blatantly disobeying existing regs anyway, Breck.

Keep in mind that not all churches lean right; plenty actually believe in the teachings of Jesus (and other enlightened visionaries), and will be freed to do the same electioneering that right wing churches have done under the radar.

Otherwise, I agree with your sentiment, and when we have sane people back in charge, we can go back to restricting houses of worship to their original tax-exempt mission.

Infraredguy
Infraredguy

@Visual_Cortex Black Churches are KNOWN for being political for years and years and NOTHING was ever done about that, where was your indignation over that?

bu22
bu22

@Infraredguy @Visual_Cortex Which is probably why Trump supports this.  I still think its a bad idea, both for the country and for the churches.

breckenridge
breckenridge

@Infraredguy @breckenridge 

Well Infred we have Arbor Day and  Columbus Day and Veterans Day and Take Your Kid To Work Day and so forth........why not Punch-A-Southern-Baptist-Preacher-In-The-Face day? It makes perfect sense to me.

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@bu22 @breckenridge @AndyManUSA#45 When the deep state is liberal they only enforce this against evangelicals.  Have you ever noticed that every dang politician, even GOPers, campaigns openly in black churches and begs for votes.  No one thinks a thing about it, but if Jerry Falwell, Jr does it, he probably will lose his IRS exemption.  Double standard, of course.