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Friday, 05 April 2013 07:45

DeMint's Domain: The Heritage Foundation at Forty

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Weyrich’s vision, Coors’ money, Fuelner’s leadership, and Reagan’s stamp of approval propelled the Heritage Foundation to prominence. Will Jim DeMint’s marketing strategy lead to a conservative revival?

For a good part of the past forty years, The Heritage Foundation has been the most influential conservative think tank in the country. Now, with its long-time president Ed Fuelner stepping down and Tea Party favorite former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint becoming its president, will it continue to prosper?

Whatever else can be said about Fuelner, who was president of Heritage for nearly 36 years, he certainly changed the way right-wing think tanks wonk!

In his last official note to the troops -- sent out on his final day as Heritage president -- Fuelner thanked supporters, warned that “progressives are on the offensive, aggressively trying to remake our country using a Euro-socialist mold,” and encouraged them to “remain optimistic about the future.”

“When we started Heritage in 1973, liberals controlled the Congress and all the socio-cultural institutions,” Fuelner wrote. “In the White House, we had a president [Richard Nixon] weakened by scandal and who had instituted wage and price controls, grown the welfare state, and trekked to Beijing to meet Mao. We had few, if any, allies in positions of power back in 1973. We were in fact surrounded.”

I’ve been covering Heritage for more than half its existence. Five years ago, when Heritage turned 35, I pointed out that when the organization first opened its doors, the Vietnam War was finally winding its way toward a conclusion; Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned in disgrace and President Richard Nixon would soon follow; the civil rights and women's movements had won a number of transformative battles; having a social safety net was still a shared social value; privatization was a relatively little used term; and the "culture wars" had not yet punctured the national consciousness.”

Although conservative enterprises such as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Washington, DC-based American Enterprise Institute pre-dated it, Heritage was the first conservative think tank to be adopted by big-time right-wing financial backers, including beer magnate Joseph Coors and heir to the Mellon fortune, Richard Mellon Scaife. Big bucks, combined with direct mail expertise, savvy marketing and public relations, vaulted Heritage to the top tier of right-wing think tanks and public policy institutes.

In 1983, three years after Heritage’s Mandate for Leadership: Policy Management in a Conservative Presidency had helped pave the way for Ronald Reagan’s election, Reagan spoke at a dinner celebrating Heritage’s tenth anniversary: "Historians who seek the real meaning of events in the latter part of the 20th century must look back on gatherings such as this. They will find among your numbers the leaders of an intellectual revolution that recaptured and renewed the great lessons of Western culture, a revolution that is rallying the democracies to the defense of that culture and to the cause of human freedom, a revolution that I believe is also writing the last sad pages of a bizarre chapter in human history known as communism."

DeMint’s Million Dollar Payday

There have been few in Congress as extreme and as obstructionist as Jim DeMint. Now he is tasked with leading The Heritage Foundation.

In early January, DeMint took to the opinion pages of the Washington Post and laid out his blueprint for the organization’s future. DeMint pointed out that Heritage was the right place “to launch a conservative revival.” Recognizing that “for consumers and voters, perception is reality,” DeMint counseled taking the conservative case directly to the people, starting “where all good marketing starts: with research.”

Months before the GOP had reached a somewhat similar conclusion in its autopsy, DeMint claimed it was all about marketing and messaging: “We need to test the market and our message to communicate more effectively.

“That’s why Heritage will start this year to help the conservative movement understand how Americans from all walks of life perceive public policy issues and how to communicate conservative ideas and solutions,” he wrote.

In a late-March USA Today column, DeMint helped “Americans from all walks of life” get straight on the issue of same-sex marriage. He argued that “governmental redefinition of marriage is a power grab that attacks civil society.” He maintained that since “Marriage is the foundation of America's cultural stability and economic prosperity,” a pro-same-sex marriage ruling by the Supreme Court would weaken “the marriage culture” and, even worse, “grow” the government.

After DeMint was named president of the Heritage Foundation, Forbes magazine contributor Thomas J. Basile penned a late-December column titled “Walking The Tightrope At The Heritage Foundation: Will Jim DeMint Destroy The GOP Or Save It?”

“DeMint’s new role at Heritage is fraught with peril,” Basile wrote, “not as much for him but for the Republican Party.  What is at stake could be the very future of American Conservatism.”f

Basile pointed out that “Think tanks like Heritage raise a lot of money – hundreds of millions – but they have produced little in the way of real policy or electoral success. … Organizations like Heritage however speak to the DC beltway chattering class of television talking heads, columnists and the cocktail party circuit rather than real Americans dealing with real problems caused by government’s largess.”   

Heritage’s stated mission is to “formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.” Despite these laudable goals, Basile noted that “with the exception of advocating for a strong national defense and the establishment of several staple indices over the last forty years, all of Heritage’s conferences, studies, white papers and symposia have failed to move the needle appreciably on most of its own goals.” 

According to Basile, DeMint’s “following among evangelicals, social conservatives and the Tea Party,’ could “make Heritage a much more effective political vehicle….  But will he move Heritage too far to the right, and bring with him more of an emphasis on social policy?  Will he establish a political arm of the Foundation to bolster the efforts of Heritage Action and manage that much like he did the SCF [Senate Conservative Fund]?  Will he help drive a message beyond the beltway to broader audiences at a more local level?”

Basile recognizes that DeMint, who started his career in market research has the opportunity to lead Heritage “to help rebrand, refocus and reenergize ordinary people around the quintessentially American values the majority of us share, not those that are the most divisive.”

“But if his past dozen years in Washington is prologue to the Heritage Foundation of tomorrow, it could be disastrous for the GOP, leading to a further narrowing of its appeal and the road to real fiscal reform. Only time will tell.”

Perhaps time is already telling: at the opening night dinner of the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) on Thursday, March 14, DeMint told the audience not to abandon repealing Obamacare, not to support broad-based immigration reform, and not to abandon so-called traditional vales; and, in late March, while the Supreme Court was preparing to hear two cases relating to marriage equality — one regarding the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8 and another challenging the so-called Defense of Marriage Act — DeMint’s Heritage Foundation was getting together with the virulently anti-gay National Organization for Marriage to organize a March for Marriage in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Jim DeMint (Source: DonkeyHotey / Flickr)