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Monday, 10 December 2012 06:51

Will Jim DeMint Turn the Heritage Foundation Into a Tea Party Domain?

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It’s not clear who got the best of the deal: the Heritage Foundation for finding, if not the most visionary idea man, a more than able fundraiser; the Tea Party, for placing one of their own at the helm of the most powerful conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.; or the Senate for being able to bid him adieu.

Last week, doing an expanded version of Sarah Palin – abandoning his voters and leaving his station early -- South Carolina’s ultra-conservative Senator Jim DeMint announced that he is leaving the Senate to take over the presidency of Washington, D.C.’s longtime conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation. Financially, the move is a definite step up for DeMint, as according to reports, he will earn about $1 million – about four times what he’s making now -- to run Heritage.

"I'm leaving the Senate now, but I'm not leaving the fight," DeMint said in a statement. "I've decided to join The Heritage Foundation at a time when the conservative movement needs strong leadership in the battle of ideas. No organization is better equipped to lead this fight and I believe my experience in public office as well as in the private sector as a business owner will help Heritage become even more effective in the years to come."

A tea party favorite, DeMint’s days in the Senate will be remembered for mostly obstructionist blather, highlighted by his feisty comments in 2009 about health care reform:  "If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him," he said.

DeMint, certain that health care reform would be defeated, added, "Senators and Congressmen will come back in September afraid to vote against the American people," DeMint predicted, adding that "this health care issue Is D-Day for freedom in America."

Ironically, as Elspeth Reeve of theatlanticwire.com pointed out: “we can't help but note that [DeMint’s new] base of operations originated the health care mandate that Tea Partiers like DeMint find so intolerable. (Heritage was even at Mitt Romney's signing of Romneycare, which inspired Obamacare.)”

Heritage Foundation pairing up with DeMint

What lies ahead for a Heritage Foundation run by Jim DeMint?

“With the DeMint hire, the Tea Party has wrested control of one of the Republican Party’s most established incubators of ideas and policy proposals,” Devin Burghart, vice president at the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, told me in an email interview. “Hiring a political figure like DeMint is an indicator that the organization is further pivoting away from its established role as a ‘scholarly’ think tank to become more of a political apparatus for the Tea Party.

“As a movement, the Tea Party has been yearning for an established think tank that speaks to their issues, and that gives their ideas added credibility and gravitas. None of the current organizations met that desire. Under DeMint, Heritage fits the bill.”  

Burghart pointed out that, “The question remains as to whether Heritage maintains its position as a pipeline to the GOP establishment (though now pumping the more noxious brand of Tea Party ideas), or if the group relinquishes that spot to take up position outside the establishment (thereby moving alongside other Tea Party-aligned beltway groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity).”  

Since the 2008 election of President Barack Obama – and now, his re-election – Heritage, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, has been devoted to heaping an unremitting stream of criticism on Obama and his administration. At the same time, the organization has continued to raise oodles of money.  

Heritage’s history

Whatever one thinks of the often flabby research-studies that have emanated from the innards of the Heritage Foundation, there is no disputing that it has been the most powerful Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank for many years.

Writing about its founding in 1973, in his book The Power of Ideas, Historian Lee Edwards, pointed out that at the time "Conservative leaders and conservative ideas were out of public favor.... In foreign [affairs], dètente was riding high...[as Nixon] traveled to Communist China to kowtow to Mao Zedong."

As I wrote nearly five years ago on the occasion of Heritage’s 35th birthday:

“While Heritage wasn't the first conservative think tank—the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Washington, DC-based American Enterprise Institute had been slogging along for years — it was the first to be consciously embraced by a host of wealthy right-wing benefactors (including beer magnate Joseph Coors and heir to the Mellon fortune, Richard Mellon Scaife) who had more on their minds than just churning out policy papers that few would read. One of the ideological guides to the foundation's creation and early work was Paul Weyrich, now considered the ‘Godfather’ of the New Right.”

The Heritage Foundation challenged and often defeated the entrenched liberal establishment in D.C. The late William Simon, Nixon's former energy czar and Treasury Secretary, and the then-president of the conservative Olin Foundation proposed that Heritage be the beacon for the rise of a “counter-intelligentsia.”

Simon wrote: "Funds generated by business ... must rush by the multi-million to the aid of liberty... to funnel desperately needed funds to scholars, social scientists, writers and journalists who understand the relationship between political and economic liberty."

And funders rushed to fill Heritage’s coffers.

In 1983, two years after being elected president – in large part guided by the Heritage Foundation’s weighty “Mandate for Leadership” -- Ronald Reagan told the crowd at the organization’s tenth anniversary dinner that "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."

Now nearly 30 years after that celebration, the Heritage Foundation, whose relatively headquarters includes intern and fellow apartments, a 200-seat auditorium, a private fitness center, and two floors dedicated to expanding the research department, is turning its reins over to Jim DeMint.  

Devin Burghart pointed out that the arrival of the Tea Party in 2009 “caught [mainline] conservative institutions like Heritage flat-footed, and they’ve been playing catch-up with the grassroots ever since. Given the Heritage role in creating the blueprint for Obamacare, the group floundered early in Tea Party circles.

“Heritage found a backdoor into the movement in 2010 with the rise of Tea Party voter suppression efforts like True the Vote. Heritage provided the intellectual backing to the Tea Party interest in ‘voter fraud’, and provided policy advice and direction from the earliest days to the voter suppression wing of the movement. In fact, Heritage Foundation fellow Hans van Spakovsky is a ‘senior advisor’ to True the Vote and serves on the group’s advisory council.”

Jim DeMint brings “prodigious fundraising talents to Heritage, which should bolster the organization’s PAC status as a serious player in the electoral arena,” Burghart noted. “By contrast, this year the Heritage Foundation's PAC made just $227,000 in independent expenditures in seven federal races, a pittance compared to the amount spent by groups like the Tea Party Express and Crossroads GPS.  Heritage Foundation PAC-backed candidates lost in all but two of those races. Look for DeMint to use the Heritage PAC coffers as both the carrot and the stick with Republicans on the Hill.

According to Burghart, it is also possible that Heritage, which has shown more interest in anti-immigrant politics in recent years, will have “nativist politics seep deeper into the organization under DeMint’s leadership. In the Senate, DeMint was one of the founding members of the anti-immigrant Senate Border Security Caucus.”

Although it is unlikely the Heritage Foundation will be changing its name anytime soon, under DeMint’s leadership, thinking of the organization as the Heritage Tea Party Foundation would not be too far off the mark.