Back in the 1980s, when I was a college kid, the Republican Party was widely seen as the party of ideas. They may have been bad ideas, mind you, but there was real intellectual energy and ferment on the Right, versus static attitudinizing on the Left. For better or for worse, the Right set the agenda for American politics.
That hasn’t been the case for a while. Writing in The Atlantic today, Molly Ball traces the decline of the American Right as an idea factory to the decline of the Heritage Foundation as an idea factory. To be clear, I haven’t been following the inside baseball of the relationship between Washington think tanks to Washington politics closely enough to judge the fairness and accuracy of her essay; I leave that to my TAC colleagues and your readers who have been paying attention. But at least hers is a provocative thesis worth considering.
In short, Ball argues that Heritage used to be a serious and highly influential policy shop, but over the years it has become more of a political action committee run by Tea Party ideology. Republicans on the Hill are angry at it for sandbagging the party. The gist here is that Heritage has ceased to be a place for creative right-wing thinking and policy innovation, and instead become a bastion of Tea Party attitudinizing.
Again, I can’t know the degree to which that is true, but I will say the fact that Congressional Republicans aren’t always happy with Heritage is not, to my mind, a black mark against the think tank. Intellectual independence is no bad thing. On the other hand, Ball offers evidence that Heritage is alienating Hill Republicans for cheap ideological reasons. She cites this blistering op-ed by Brian Walsh, a former Heritage staffer, blasting the think tank for losing its way in the thickets of partisanship. Excerpt from Walsh’s piece:
In fact, the Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action, the political arm of the once well-respected Heritage Foundation, have spent more money so far on attack ads this year against House and Senate Republicans than the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic National Committee, combined. All the while, virtually every Senate Democrat up for re-election in 2014 – all of whom were the deciding vote on Obamacare – has been given a free pass by these groups.
You see, money begets TV ads which begets even more money for these groups’ personal coffers. Pointing fingers and attacking Republicans is apparently a very profitable fundraising business. It’s also a detriment to the future of the Republican party and the critical effort to defend the House and win back the Senate in 2014.
Well, I don’t think it’s the business of a think tank to be onside either political party, but the examples Walsh cites in his piece are pretty outrageous, and do not reflect well on Heritage under Jim DeMint’s leadership.
In any case, I long for the day when the Right, and the GOP, once again becomes the party of ideas, innovation, and effective governance, versus irrritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas. It would be nice to see this on the Left too, but they’re not my problem. What I’d like to know from you readers who live and work in Washington is how come think tanks used to be places of intellectual dynamism, but now seem more like institutions that function as ideology factories. A friend who works at one prominent think tank lamented to me that in one prominent policy area (I’m not naming it, or the think tank), all thinking that contradicts the ossified status quo had been declared heresy by the person who runs that division. To question the status quo was to risk unemployment; consequently, nobody in that policy shop questioned the status quo. Is this normal in Washington think tanks?