Heritage Should Look to its Past to Take on the Future | Opinion

As Kay Coles James prepares to leave her position as president of the Heritage Foundation, the storied conservative institution faces some serious challenges. Once at the vanguard of conservatism, the Heritage Foundation, like conservatism itself, is somewhat adrift at a time when America needs a conservative voice more than ever.

In the quest for a new leader, Heritage should return to its roots and learn from its past successes. A look at the history of what has worked—and what has failed—will help Heritage reclaim its position as a top-flight institution that unleashes ideas, equips leaders and pushes freedom and opportunity for all.

To this end, the think tank's new leader should aim to do four things:

First, set the agenda. Heritage has been remarkably effective in shaping discourse when it puts forward clear, concise and decisive policies in a well-articulated framework. The most famous example was its "Mandate for Leadership," which presented Ronald Reagan's team with 2,000 specific policy proposals based on the work of Heritage scholars.

Heritage claims that 60 percent of the Mandate's recommendations were adopted during the Reagan administration, prompting William F. Buckley's quip that this explained "why Mr. Reagan's tenure was 60 percent successful." Reagan himself praised the Mandate, calling it "a warning shot, telling the liberal establishment that a new sheriff and new deputies had ridden into town and they could not expect to carry on business as usual."

Even though it is harder to press new initiatives when the other side is in power, conservative think tanks in opposition can still focus on a positive agenda that can attract and inform political leaders, free-thinking journalists and talk radio. In the 1990s, shortly after Bill Clinton was elected, Heritage held a session with Reagan and Bush cabinet secretary William Bennett and congressman Dick Armey to build a conservative agenda for the Clinton years. In 1994, Heritage worked with Newt Gingrich and other GOP leaders to develop the "Contract with America," which helped Republicans capture the House and Senate in that year's elections. And Heritage even worked with the Clinton administration on issues of mutual agreement, such as welfare reform. Heritage's new president will have to help figure out how to keep Heritage relevant while Democrats control Congress and the White House.

Second, produce reports that help lawmakers anticipate, prepare and debate the hottest issues. In 1973, Heritage came into being as an alternative to more staid think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, which produced reports after key votes in Congress had already taken place. Heritage consciously wanted to influence debate and negotiation on key votes. So it set as its goal the "briefcase test"—all of its papers had to fit in a briefcase and be readable in less than an hour.

Kay Coles James
Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James receives the HBCU Alumni Leadership Award at the TMCF 32nd Anniversary Awards Gala on October 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. Getty Images

Heritage also crafted executive summaries that congressmen and senators could read on their way from their offices to cast votes. Other think tanks have since copied that model, and the internet gives members access to even more information, so Heritage—and its new leader—will need to find ways to encourage members to pick the Heritage briefing materials as the last thing they look at before a vote.

Third, become a city on a hill for conservatives to gather and forge consensus. Our politics and culture are not just more partisan; they are more fragmented. Heritage used to be the place to go for a short primer on just about any issue from a conservative perspective. This does not mean that it was always the correct or even a workable position, but it was a safe bet that it would give a good sense of what the conservative consensus might be. In these days of division among conservatives, Heritage must help conservatives unite, emphasizing the best path forward.

It's clear that there are disagreements within the conservative family on whether to stick mainly to Reaganite economic principles or to incorporate more social and cultural issues favored by those in the "realignment" camp. It may not be possible to get these camps to agree, but it may be possible to identify areas of mutual cross-conservative agreement. Heritage could potentially help bring this about by encouraging internal and external debates, reminding policymakers and thought leaders of the first principles of the Founding, identifying and highlighting potentially dangerous precedents from the Biden administration, and mapping the way to uphold shared ideals.

Fourth, focus on powerhouse scholarship, not power-play politics. In 2010, Heritage created a political arm, called Heritage Action. The real and legitimate reason for doing so was to prevent scholars from directly advocating positions on the Hill and thereby running afoul of lobbying restrictions on think tanks. Heritage Action quickly became a force in its own right, and instead of its lobbyists taking cues from Heritage scholars, it appeared to set the agenda for the scholars—a classic instance of the tail wagging the dog.

The ascent of Heritage Action had some problematic implications. Its scorecards dinging congressional Republicans who voted against Heritage Action led to reprisals, including the banning of Heritage scholars from some GOP strategy sessions. And Heritage's scholarship took a reputational hit as well. As the author Dan Drezner wrote in The Ideas Industry, "liberal intellectuals had derided Heritage's intellectual quality in the past. What changed under [former Heritage president Jim] DeMint was that conservatives began doing so as well." Heritage's new leader will have to repair damage that was done by moving more towards politics than scholarship, something Heritage scholars will likely appreciate.

Whoever takes the mantle at Heritage inherits these challenges but some significant assets as well. Heritage has a large budget, an enviable direct mail list of small-dollar donors, many well-regarded scholars and an impressive history to draw from.

The challenges at present might seem daunting, but Heritage has never shied away from big challenges. With the right leadership, Heritage can draw inspiration from its past, learn from its successes and failures alike, and help take an uncertain conservative movement into the next decades.

Tevi Troy is a presidential historian and former White House aide and Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services. His latest book is Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.