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Column: Under DeMint, Heritage Is Losing Its Credibility and Clout

In addition to the damage done to the GOP by his penchant for right-wing antics, of which the shutdown fiasco was only the latest, Jim DeMint, the president of Heritage Foundation, has ushered in a new era in the once-proud conservative think tank’s history.

Under DeMint, Heritage Foundation has been subsumed to the interests of its sister organization, Heritage Action. As a result, Heritage Foundation is suffering a grievous slide in intellectual integrity and influence. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is the latest of many conservatives openly to express concern about the think tank. He told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd this week, “Right now, I think it’s in danger of losing its clout and its power around Washington, D.C. There’s a real question in the minds of many Republicans now, and I’m not just speaking for myself, for a lot of people that ⅛question is: Is Heritage going to go so political that it really doesn’t amount to anything anymore?”

We saw this play out during the immigration reform fight when Heritage did an about face on prior research and analysis and put out an embarrassingly shoddy report by an author who previously claimed Hispanics were genetically less intelligent. Contrary to every other right-leaning think tank and years of free-market research, Heritage claimed that immigration is bad for the U.S. economy. Opponents of the Senate immigration reform effort tried to peddle the report. However, the author subsequently was forced to resign and wound up helping to discredit Heritage’s argument.

Heritage’s new and overtly politicized role played out again in the shutdown fight when its president became the public face of Heritage Action’s insistence on the failed defund strategy and vilification of conservative opponents. In the Wall Street Journal, DeMint last week engaged in some revisionist history. For example, he wrote, “If the Republicans had not fought on Obamacare, the compromise would have been over the budget sequester. Instead, they have retained the sequester and for the past three months Obamacare and its failings have been front and center in the national debate.”

This is preposterous. The so-called Cantor-plan put forth by the House majority leader would have locked in the sequester and moved the Obamacare fight to the debt limit debate; it was actively opposed by the defund advocates. Likewise, DeMint pledged to fight on in the battle against Obamacare. Only a few months ago he was arguing that it was vital to fight the Obamacare battle because once it was enacted the public would be hooked on subsidies. This argument has been echoed and amplified by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. The argument has turned out in the wake of the Obamacare rollout meltdown and the meager sign-ups to be egregiously wrong. Yet, Heritage and others aligned with DeMint admit no error or inconsistency.

It is one thing for a political operator or a senator to engage in such intellectual contortions, but it is quite another for the head of a think tank, presumably dedicated to truthful public policy analysis and study.

Last week it was also reported by Foreign Policy that DeMint personally spiked a scholarly report by former Bush administration attorney Steven Bradbury, attesting in a detailed statutory and constitutional analysis to the legality of the NSA surveillance program. (Not knowing this background, I previously had cited his exceptionally detailed and persuasive analysis, which was eventually published by the Brookings Institute.)

I asked Heritage about the report and whether, like other think tanks, it kept senior management and board members out of the approval and publishing process. Vice President of Communications Michael Gonzalez responded via email, “Heritage decided not to publish the paper (we do discuss most issues here at some length). We notified the author promptly so that the paper could be published elsewhere. I can also tell you that Jim DeMint did not make the decision not to use the paper and that we are planning to write Foreign Policy and ask for a correction.” He refused to answer repeated questions as to whether DeMint weighed in or affected the decision. He also refused to specify if Heritage makes certain that publishing decisions are made by the scholars in that field. (In the case of the immigration paper, a since-departed Heritage scholar told Right Turn that multiple questions were raised about the credibility of the paper but that the DeMint crew, newly arrived at the time, insisted on going forward.) As for Foreign Policy, as of this writing, it has not received any request for a correction from Heritage and indeed never heard back from Heritage after its reporter described the piece to Heritage and requested comment.

Bradbury refused to speak to us about the incident. I did, however, talk with Brookings about its decision to publish the piece. Benjamin Wittes, who heads the widely respected Lawfare blog and has overseen Brookings new research paper series on national security told me, “I thought the paper was enormously compelling. It is a very cogent argument for the program’s legality.” He added, “Bradbury is an important voice, one of the few people who has worked on ⅛these issues.”

He declined to speak about the Heritage controversy, as did Brookings vice president of communications, David Nassar, who spoke to me by phone. “Brookings does not have institutional positions on issues,” Nassar said. (This is generally the case at the respected think tanks. At the American Enterprise Institute, for example, scholars take different positions on banking regulations and tax reform.) He pointed to Brookings motto: “Quality, independence, impact.”

As to the importance of the paper series, Nassar added, “The breadth and depth of the scholarship demonstrates its value. It’s an important discussion to have.” (The Lawfare research paper series is also a bold attempt to replace the academic, stodgy law review articles. As Wittes wrote, “We focus only on scholarship we think is actually useful and important to policymakers and national security practitioners.”) From my vantage point — as a recovering lawyer and former law school student — it is inconceivable that the paper would have been rejected on grounds of quality or readability.

It speaks volumes that a generally center-left think tank will publish the important scholarly contributions of a conservative attorney on a key national security matter, but Heritage will not. (Apparently the new anti-surveillance isolationist bug is too inviting to Heritage to undermine with actual scholarship.) The failure to separate intellectual inquiry from raw partisan politics troubles conservatives and has contributed to a number of scholars’ departures during the short DeMint regime. The lack of intellectual rigor and the primacy of partisan food fights under DeMint — who still talks and writes like a partisan attack dog and not the head of a scholarly institution — deeply worry conservatives, including this one, who remember the “old Heritage” fondly.

Jennifer Rubin is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post.