BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. With Republicans in charge of Congress and the White House, not to mention the recent vote on health care, the influential conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation should be in clover. Instead, it's in turmoil.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Heritage Foundation president, he is the South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, he is resigning from his post at Heritage, this, after a unanimous vote from the board called for him to step down.
BOB GARFIELD: And the venerable institution’s scholarly half is reportedly at odds with its political operation. It’s an ironic twist at a political moment that in many ways is the culmination of a painstaking and extremely costly reordering of the political landscape.
McKay Coppins is a staff writer at The Atlantic and author of The Wilderness, a book about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
McKAY COPPINS: Jim DeMint was really a Ted Cruz-like figure before Ted Cruz was in the Senate. He was a truth-telling bomb-thrower, not somebody known for making a lot of compromises or getting legislation passed but the kind of guy who was out there making a defiant, impassioned case for conservative ideas and conservative values. And it was exactly the kind of profile that I think Heritage was looking for when they wanted to enter the political sphere more aggressively.
What's changed, I think, since then is that Heritage is embedded with the White House in a way that they weren't four years ago, and maybe it makes more sense for them to be kind of quietly advising the president, as opposed to angrily picking fights with the people in power.
BOB GARFIELD: It was chartered to be a scholarly institution, to create the intellectual academic underpinnings for its policy goals. It kind of bifurcated. It’s not, of late under Jim DeMint, the pure think tank that it once was, right?
McKAY COPPINS: Yeah, yeah, so Heritage launched this kind of political arm called Heritage Action, whose job was basically to lobby Congress, to support candidates, to pick big high-profile dramatic fights in Washington over the issues that they cared about. And, increasingly, over the last several years, it's become known, especially in Congress and in Washington, primarily for that. You look at any of the big dramatic episodes on the right over the past few years and there’s a chance that Heritage had a pretty combative role in it.
BOB GARFIELD: Like shutting down the government, for example.
McKAY COPPINS: [LAUGHS] Yes, that’s right, the 2013 government shutdown was in large part driven by Heritage Action. Think about the immigration fight of 2013, where the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform legislation only to have it torpedoed before it ever passed the House or got to the president's desk. Heritage Action had a pretty big role in waging that fight, as well. A lot [LAUGHS] of people on Capitol Hill were kind of shocked and taken aback, and it’s earned them a lot of enemies, it’s safe to say.
BOB GARFIELD: It strikes me that if you are presenting yourself to the world as a scholarly institution, which presumes a kind of intellectual honesty, if you are also trying to be an advocacy organization for a political ideology, it would put your scholarly work very much into doubt.
McKAY COPPINS: Well, this is certainly one of the big points of contention in Heritage these days, and you hear basically two competing camps spinning their stories. From the anti-DeMint camp, you hear people saying that under his leadership the researchers and the academics and the policy folks were increasingly expected to produce research and papers that had a predetermined conclusion.
BOB GARFIELD: Cooking the books.
McKAY COPPINS: Yeah, right, so Heritage leadership would come and say, we want to have research to back up this position we’re going to stake out, whether it was on immigration or tax reform, or whatever, and then there would be an expectation that the researchers and academics would produce research that supported that. [LAUGHS] People in DeMint’s camp say that that's ludicrous, that that never happened, that there was this very stark wall that separated the research folks from the political folks. And maybe that was true organizationally, but the reality is when Heritage is out there in the news every day picking big political fights, it's hard for the researchers not to notice that.
BOB GARFIELD: On the subject of bifurcation, the Republicans control both houses of Congress, they control the Executive Branch. They have, again, a majority on the Supreme Court. So they should be in clover, [LAUGHS] but –
- there’s trifurcation, quadrification.
McKAY COPPINS: [LAUGHS] Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: Heritage’s circumstances seem to me to be kind of the circumstances of conservatism and the GOP in microcosm.
McKAY COPPINS: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: They are not a monolith.
McKAY COPPINS: That's absolutely right. To most outside observers, it looks like the Republican Party for the last eight years was pretty united because they were united in opposition to Obama. Now that Donald Trump is president, who has championed the sort of nationalist populist message that is not necessarily rooted in the Reagan-style conservatism that Heritage, for example, championed, the power politics that are taking place backstage at Heritage have all been fought around Donald Trump's rise and the various ideological tensions that have arisen from that.
What ends up happening to Heritage really could foretell what happens to the American right and, more broadly, to this country's politics over the next several years.
BOB GARFIELD: McKay, thank you so much.
McKAY COPPINS: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: McKay Coppins is a staff writer at The Atlantic and author of the suddenly very relevant, The Wilderness, a book about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.