How to fix the Heritage Foundation

It’s been a tumultuous time for the conservative movement. Its most important policy organization, The Heritage Foundation, saw a leadership fight that spilled into the public arena, threatening the long-standing reputation of the organization. The “he said, she said” finger pointing continues.

Senior Heritage staff hostile to President Jim DeMint, former South Carolina Senator, leaked to the media that DeMint was on his way out, while the senator and those loyal to him talked positive performance metrics. Anonymous and “inside” sources on both sides blamed each other for being too close to Trump, hostile to Trump, too political, not political enough, among other allegations.  

Founder, and conservative icon, Ed Feulner announced he would serve as the interim president bringing continuity while a successor was being chosen. It should be reassuring to conservatives across the country that he is at the helm.

But this leadership change should also lead The Heritage board, its staff, and conservatives across the country to focus on what the Foundation should look like tomorrow to confront the challenges posed to this exceptional nation. Its new leadership will need to confront a new public policy landscape and set to answer these questions:

1. How does the Foundation restore its reputation as a top research think tank?

We can assume that there is erosion in the reputation "brand" because there is much discussion about the topic. Elected officials, media talking heads and even conservative activists are unsure where the organization is going. Is it moving from a less policy-focused to more of an activist organization — ramping up Heritage Action “key votes” and advocacy media? Or, will it reclaim its legendary research prowess designed to impact law, regulation and culture? It is important that the incoming leadership conduct both quantitative and qualitative research on what the customers (elected officials, staff, Administration members, media, etc.) really think about the organization and its research. If the organization puts more emphasis on research, the proliferation of ‘right of center’ policy groups makes it much more challenging in today’s environment to brand Heritage as “the” conservative organization across all issues. Research consumers don’t have the time or even the inclination to see the subtle ideological differences between Heritage, CATO, Mercatus, AEI and countless others.

2. Should its political arm, Heritage Action, continue to exist?

This is a relatively easy answer: It has to go. Or, at least Heritage Action needs to be spun off with a different name and no links with the new leadership and the organization. Despite its current challenges and the growth of conservative policy organizations, Heritage owns the words “conservative research” in the halls of Congress and the administration. It cannot be both a premier research organization and an effective advocacy group. The mission, cultures and types of personalities involved in each organization are fundamentally different. Heritage Action was an experiment. But it is a serious drag on the mission of the organization. 

3. How does the Foundation end the feuding among the various internal factions?

Successful organizations must allow internal discussion and open communication. But it cannot allow any individual to poison the culture by engaging in undermining the leader. All those who were behind leaking the media and engaged in undermining Sen. DeMint must leave or be terminated. Their continued working for the organization signals to all employees that the mission is less important to the success of the organization than engaging in character attacks. There needs to be a clean slate for the new leadership to be successful.

4. Should there be more focus of Heritage resources to maximize impact?

New leadership allows the whole organization to assess its strategies and tactics to achieve its mission. There should be a candid assessment of what is currently being done and how it impacts policy. Of course, the challenge is setting the metrics. Some results are short-term, some longer term. One of my favorite Heritage moments was its hosting of Nobel Prize winner Fredrick Hayek at the Capitol Hill Club years ago. My time spent with the Nobel Prize winner as a young Hill staffer helped propel me through my economics Ph.D., leading national associations, and now teaching law students. 

5. All of us should want Heritage to succeed 

In today’s partisan and often-toxic political environment, Americans of all ideological backgrounds and political viewpoints should be routing for a robust rebound of The Heritage Foundation. Its historical attention to solid research, academic thoroughness, and serving as a home for conservative intellectuals has only resulted in better public policy options for all Americans.  

David Rehr is Senior Associate Dean and Professor of Law at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, where he teaches Legislative Advocacy and Strategic Leadership. He is former CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters and President of the National Beer Wholesalers Association.

The views of contributors are their own and not of The Hill.