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What Comes Next After The Heritage Foundation Coup?


In the past 25 years, there have been five prominent attempted political coup d’etats  on the American right: that of Newt Gingrich over Bob Michel, the attempted Bill Paxon coup over Gingrich, the Trent Lott coup which Don Nickles spearheaded, the Cato coup attempted by the Kochs, and the FreedomWorks coup Dick Armey attempted to oust Matt Kibbe. Of these, in only one case did the coup attempted universally succeed in a way that benefited the antagonist: Gingrich over Michel. In the case of coups against Gingrich and Lott, they were replaced, but not by their attackers (Paxon and Nickles ultimately retired). Cato and Koch came to a compromise that removed Ed Crane without collateral damage. Kibbe kept his job and Armey got a payoff, but he permanently crippled FreedomWorks and became a pariah instead of president. The Heritage Foundation coup is the latest addition to this list, and the ramifications for the American right have the potential to be wide-ranging and destructive in the short term.

Yesterday, in his explanation of Heritage’s board deciding to fire Jim DeMint, chairman Thomas Saunders maintained that this was a deliberative decision, made with unity, and representing a better track for the think tank.

“It will make Heritage stronger in the short term and the long run,” he says.

The announcement is made without any gratitude toward DeMint’s effect on the organization’s fundraising, or credit for his wise bet – alone among Washington think tanks – that it was important for Heritage to be closely involved with the Trump transition team. Perhaps all of Saunders’ objections to DeMint are true, but that does not excuse the classless and needlessly cruel statement released by the think tank.

There is also something worse here: there is a trio of glaring falsehoods at the center of Saunders’ statement. Saunders writes:

“While we were trying to resolve this matter amicably, we honored our side of the bargain to remain silent. I wanted to ensure that the Board’s decision was final before alerting you. Unfortunately, the media ran with speculation about this story before the facts could be disclosed.”

Imagine for a moment what would be required for this statement to not be a bald-faced lie. Well, in order for the first sentence to be true, reporters at the New York Times and Politico would have had to fabricate quotes, and the sources of those quotes, in order to further an anti-Heritage agenda. In order for the second sentence to be true, those fabricated quotes would have to be aimed at achieving a result other than what the coup-minded individuals wished to attain. And in order for the third sentence to be true, the reports published by outlets such as our own would have to have been rampant unfounded speculation disproven by action and results.

Of course, none of what Saunders says here is true. It is utterly false. The only reason this story even became public is because of the statements of an anonymous board member.  The decision comment is untrue – clearly, those intent on a DeMint ouster were the original sources of the “anonymous board member” sourced reports, not DeMint’s defenders. And finally, the “speculation” comment is laughable. The stories run in multiple media outlets, including The Federalist, relied on multiple sources from inside Heritage, sources whose depiction of the internal strife, as evidenced by yesterday’s decision, turned out to be largely accurate.

It is a small thing, but telling. There is no other way to say it: the Chairman of the Board of the Heritage Foundation is lying. In order for him not to be a liar, The New York Times, Politico, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and The Federalist would need to be engaged in a vast conspiracy. This is not encouraging regarding the rest of the content of Saunders’ statement and the disturbing possibility that it is pure calumny.

The board’s overall critique of Jim DeMint in their statement is that he was a poor manager. This is certainly possible, though it is odd they would have given back to back to back bonuses for him and his staff in prior years if this was the case. DeMint is a kind old-fashioned Christian southerner, and his management style is in keeping with that, as Chris Jacobs notes today. He founded and ran a marketing firm for fifteen years in South Carolina before trying his hand at politics, and then spent five years in the House and eight in the Senate before taking over Heritage. In that time, he was mostly a staunch no vote against what he viewed as big government tendencies by the Bush Administration – he is one of a very small number of Republicans who voted against No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D. The more meaningful impact he had as a freshman Senator wasn’t legislative – few freshmen do anything like that – but political: DeMint’s founding of the Senate Conservatives Fund and his aggressive approach to supporting conservatives in primaries is a key reason that Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson, Tom Cotton, and Ben Sasse are in the Senate today.

At Heritage, DeMint has functioned on many occasions as the good cop to Mike Needham’s bad cop on legislative issues – most recently when it came to the battle over the AHCA.  More importantly, he took Heritage from the doldrums it inhabited in the aftermath of the Bush administration to having actual impact again – an impact told in the multiple independent think tank rankings that have gauged Heritage’s improvement.    He ruffled feathers, installing younger personnel with Hill backgrounds who slashed travel budgets. It’s an accurate critique to say DeMint politicized Heritage – but a politicized Heritage was better than the alternative of a happy think tank grown sleek and plump, promising its donors the sky but doing little to deliver on it.

Perhaps a post-DeMint regime will improve on this status, but that will require the loyalty and continued hard work of key staffers. The fact that DeMint loyalists inside Heritage were rapidly knifed yesterday, in some cases after being pressured to sign non-disclosure agreements, does not bode well on that front. After organizations like this go through coups, they tend to hemorrhage young talent, soured on the idea that they are working for a place with different priorities than the ones they believed they were fighting for. They’re the ones who tend to read the comments.

The problem for Heritage now is the need to find a new leader. Ed Feulner is not a long term solution and Mike Needham will not be trusted by anyone with even a passing loyalty to DeMint given how this process played out. If the organization would like to establish themselves on sound footing, they will find a younger voice respected on policy grounds, with legislative and executive experience, who can speak to the full spectrum of Heritage’s issue set. Does anyone know what Bobby Jindal is up to these days?