Under Jim DeMint, the Heritage Foundation goes from think-tank to conservatives’ weapon

One of the first hints that Jim DeMint was going to shake up Washington came last winter during an address to fellow conservatives in Dallas.

DeMint had just resigned his U.S. Senate seat to take the reins of the previously wonkish Heritage Foundation, a group known for its conservative research papers.

In the audience was Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard, a longtime DeMint friend and a co-author who was on sabbatical at Southern Methodist University.

Woodard recalled hearing DeMint foreshadow a bolder vision for one of the country’s oldest Republican-aligned think tanks.

“It was more, ‘We’re not going to sit back and take it anymore,’ ” Woodard said. “The message was, ‘We need to get more involved.’ ”

Nine months later came the government shutdown, and the former senator from South Carolina was one of its architects.

Shaking things up


In the wake of the 16-day standoff, both sides still are assessing their next steps.

But one thing is clear: DeMint, who quit his Senate seat last year partly because he was fed up with his fellow members of Congress, is trying to change Washington as the head of a formerly stodgy think tank.

For his part, DeMint isn’t talking. The Heritage Foundation last week did not make him available for an interview after requests via phone and email from The Post and Courier.

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., is among those in Washington who say they’ve seen a significant change in the group’s mission since DeMint took over.

“I think they were always viewed as the ‘marquee brand,’ if you will, with regard to conservative philosophy in Washington,” said Sanford, who is well acquainted with the Heritage Foundation, in part because some of his former staffers from his first stint in Congress now work there.

“It was purely academic, and it was purely, ‘Here’s the philosophical justification for a position you might hold.’ ... They provided justification for a conservative viewpoint.”

Sanford said that since his return to Congress — a return that DeMint’s resignation set in motion this year — the foundation —and its sister organization, Heritage Action — has been more involved in scoring key votes. Heritage Action ranks House members and Senators according to how well their voting record dovetails with the foundation’s viewpoints.

“I’ve noticed a very significant change,” he said. “I suspect they still do the academic research, but they’re much more politically engaged. ... People on the (House) floor will be talking, ‘Heritage Action has “key-voted” this particular issue or not key-voted a particular issue,’ and that was never a conversation 13 years ago when I left.”

Heritage Action is the foundation’s sister group that lobbies Congress to pursue Heritage’s conservative goals.

One way it does that is “scoring” votes, compiling a scorecard that lets the foundation’s 700,000 members know how their House member and Senators stack up.

There is a faction in the Republican Party that fears that DeMint’s bold “for us or against us” strategy is dividing and weakening the party by targeting less conservative Republicans.

That was the concern recently voiced by U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

“Right now I think (the foundation is) in danger of losing its clout and its power around Washington, D.C.,” Hatch said this month of Heritage under DeMint.

“There’s a real question in the minds of many Republicans now,” he said, “and I’m not just speaking for myself. For a lot of people, that (question is), Is Heritage going to go so political that it really doesn’t amount to anything anymore?”

DeMint, a history


When he quit the Senate last December only two years into his second term to become the Heritage Foundation president, DeMint’s exit was met with little sadness among many of the South Carolina Republicans who had elected him.

While he had been routinely and highly praised for his conservative credentials, DeMint, 62, never was seen as a glad-hander or someone who liked appearing at stump meetings or Rotary Club luncheons, as previous South Carolina senators were expected to do.

He also had made it clear that he was fed up with the hurdles that it took to get anything of significance done in Washington. Plus, his Heritage salary — if anywhere close to the $1 million-plus that his predecessor was paid — would make him comfortable for life, allowing him eventually to retire to the beaches of Charleston, as he once discussed early in his Senate career.

DeMint’s rise in politics bucked the odds. By most accounts he was a virtual unknown when he ran for Congress in 1998. He was a Greenville marketing professional with no previous political experience who ended up winning the Upstate’s 4th Congressional District.

He served three terms in Washington, preaching the traditional GOP mantras of tax cuts, individual retirement accounts for Social Security and lowered business costs through capped lawsuit awards and damages.

It was a far cry from his days growing up in Greenville, where his divorced mother started a dance school in their home. The DeMint Academy of Dance and Decorum supported her and her four children in the 1950s and ’60s.

His jump to the Senate came in 2004, following the retirement of Democrat Fritz Hollings. He operated largely under the radar until 2007, when he led a sustained and successful attack on immigration reform — a proposal backed by then President George W. Bush and many GOP senators, including his South Carolina colleague Lindsey Graham.

After Democrat Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, DeMint’s stature continued to rise as a darling of the emerging tea-party movement, scoring points by pledging to make health care reform Obama’s “Waterloo.”

Heritage and shutdown


The Heritage Foundation took a ramped-up change in style once DeMint was picked last year to succeed Edwin Feulner as president. In DeMint’s first appearance he told the group’s staff it was the only job attractive enough to have him leave the Senate.

“This organization is in a position to do more to save our country than any other organization I’m aware of,” he said. “I believe that we have put together here the power, the muscle, the ideas to turn things around.”

DeMint took the reins of an $80 million-plus organization that had a lot of respect among conservatives, but also its own budget issues. Deficits grew from $2.1 million in 2010 to $7.8 million in 2011, according to the group’s 2011 tax return.

The Heritage Foundation had been launched in 1973 to research and promote conservative solutions to the nation’s top policy issues, such as national defense, health care, energy and education. Its values are listed as those based on “the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.”

In 2007 it became more political, launching Leadership for America, a 10-year campaign that Heritage bills as its boldest step yet, “a campaign for freedom, a new effort to conserve liberty, and a sustained, clear-headed program to rebuild the foundations upon which our future rests.”

The idea for a shutdown of Obama’s Affordable Care Act began formulating this year. The effort was led by a variety of conservative leaders, most notably Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a DeMint ally.

DeMint’s role included traveling around the country this summer with the Heritage Foundation’s sister organization, Heritage Action, on a speaking tour. And while most of America saw the showdown emerge in the 11th hour as budget negotiations and the fight over re-addressing some of Obamacare, played out on the airwaves and in newspapers, the strategy had been crafted months before.

In early August, for example, DeMint spelled out the strategy to TV host Greta Van Susteren on Fox News.

“This is the last chance before full implementation begins in October to stop it,” DeMint said at the time. “Republicans have had a number of opportunities to not fund it but they have (funded it) because of the threat of a shutdown. I think the stakes are so high with Obamacare that the results are going to be so devastating to our economy, to jobs, to health care, that it’s certainly worth the Republicans drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘We’re not going to fund it for this year,’ and just stand on that principle.

“Folks say, ‘You can’t win. The president will stare you down.’ The question is: Who believes more in their philosophy, the president or Republicans?”

“This is worth fighting for. Americans deserve better.”

S.C. lawmakers react


Current U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who was picked by Gov. Nikki Haley to fill DeMint’s seat, said he sees his predecessor as a success. He also doesn’t see anything out of sorts with DeMint’s style of playing the Washington game.

“Every outside organization does exactly the same thing,” Scott said. “The only question is, those who aren’t succeeding like he is succeeding complain that he’s succeeding. But they hire the same kind of folks all over the country to do what he does. He’s done it well.”

DeMint has said in an interview that he feels he is far more effective advancing the conservative cause in his new role than he ever was as a senator.

Graham said Friday the Heritage Foundation has been energized under DeMint’s leadership, and its move into advocacy reflects how politics has changed in an era of the Internet and 24/7 news channels.

Graham avoided echoing Hatch’s concern that Heritage might be moving in a direction less helpful to Republicans.

“I think in many ways the organization is more relevant,” Graham said, adding he hopes the foundation increasingly will showcase the work of GOP governors. “Where Jim takes this thing, only time will tell.”

“We agree on 90 percent of the issues,” Graham added. “People try to define splits in parties. The media loves to dwell on the contest within the party, and that’s real. It’s something we’re going to come to grips with and find out better ways to disagree with each other. But at the end of the day, we’re united far more than we’re divided.”

Others say advocates of the shutdown strategy used by DeMint to make a point over the president’s health care law unnecessarily put the country on edge for 16 days as part of a theatrical showdown that most Republicans knew they couldn’t win.

“To visit harm, and harm which will never be overcome, and then you lose $24 billion out of the economy because you oppose a law — that’s vicious,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina’s only elected Democrat in Washington and a close ally of the White House. He went on to label those who orchestrated the affair “outlaws.”

Sanford said he thinks that Heritage’s increased engagement is fine, and very much along the lines of traditional Washington groups such as the Sierra Club and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“The idea of taking a political view and holding it ought to be a good thing in the world of politics. Politics is about actually taking a stand,” he said. “You can send out a million white papers that frankly have very little effect if they’re just sort of torn and dismissed. Now it seems like there’s more teeth behind the ideas they espouse or hold, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Obviously, it can be controversial. Obviously, Senator Hatch would rather they stay in solely academic mode.”

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