Now that the former senator's defenestration is achieved, the conservative think tank ought to bury the memory of its deposed leader and put the coup behind it. For its own survival as a respectable institution and for the benefit of conservative policy development, Heritage needs to rebuild and reform.
Heritage has tried to combine academic brains and political brawn, political theory and lobbying. But increasingly it prioritized the latter while the former withered. If lawmakers on Capitol Hill rejected or simply ignored Heritage's policy prescriptions, the "think" tank put them under pressure by suggesting they were not conservative enough. This made the lawmakers angry and made the think tank look self-serving and tendentious.
"We were Ronald Reagan's favorite think tank," bragged Ed Feulner, Heritage's past and now interim president, at an all-staff meeting called to soothe rattled staffers, "and today we are, and will continue to be, Donald Trump's favorite think tank."
But the truth is that Heritage is a shadow, and a dark one, of what it used to be. The typical complaint around Washington is that it stopped doing worthwhile research and focused on raising money and strong-arming lawmakers. This critique is not entirely true; one study, by the University of Pennsylvania, found that the think tank actually increased in the national and global rankings for scholarship.
But the think tank is less sure today of exactly what it is. It has not been properly led and managed.
When DeMint surrendered his Senate seat in 2013 to take the helm, he brought his staff with him. Leading academics involves different skills and sensitivities than managing a Senate staff. Their top-down power structure, which reportedly required group vice presidents to sign off on every policy paper, stifled creativity and made it difficult to retain top talent.
Fighters for freedom ought to practice academic freedom. The Fatal Conceit can apply to a think tank central office as much as it applies to government planners.
It's time for Heritage to scrap its "one voice" rule, which requires each researcher to toe the party line. Having an institutional voice amplifies but does not encourage the competition of ideas, which is at the heart of real conservatism. The think tank needs to stop playing whack-a-mole responding to members of Congress who disagree with it. Real, sober, independent research must take priority.
A think tank should arrive at its politics through serious thought and study. It should not arrive at its thoughts by reference to its political agenda. Back in 2010, Heritage "grew fangs" with the launch of Heritage Action, a 501(c)4 lobbying arm. That addition has become the tail that wags the dog.
Loved by some but loathed by most, Heritage Action throws grenades and burns bridges on Capitol Hill. It assembled a grassroots army numbering in the tens of thousands, and created an odd creature — a powerful lobby for limited government.
Too often Heritage seemed to be attacking differences in tactics as abandonment of principles.
Long before DeMint was ousted, it was obvious that Heritage would need to take a different role, and Heritage Action a different tone in a Washington run by Republicans.
The Heritage Foundation needs to have a strong relationship with Congress. It needs to rebuild bridges. It must be independent, and not turn into the conservative version of the liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, which functioned as the non-profit arm of the Obama administration. But it needs at the same time to rediscover the maturity that did, as Feulner said, make it so effective all those long years ago, during the Reagan presidency.
The Heritage board of directors is shuffling through resumes, looking for someone with the correct mix of political savvy and policy smarts. That pick needs to hold independence as among the highest virtues — independence from the GOP and independence for scholars.
You can't fight for freedom without practicing it.