The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, has been a mainstay of right-wing domestic and foreign policy advocacy since 1973, when Paul Weyrich and Edwin Feulner founded it with the help of Joseph Coors, the heir to the Coors beer empire. As of 2015, the organization's leadership included former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who took over as its president in 2013, and former Dick Cheney adviser David Addington, who serves as Heritage's vice president.
The foundation took a leading role in the conservative movement during Ronald Reagan's presidency, when its Mandate for Leadership study helped shape many of the administration's policies. Heritage sometimes appears to be less ideologically committed on some foreign policy issues than neoconservative groups like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) or the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Nevertheless, it has consistently advocated for an expansive "war on terror," controversial weapons programs like missile defense, massive defense budgets, and militaristic approaches to dealing with U.S adversaries.
Heritage maintains a plank of some 50 in-house experts and fellows who, supported by roughly 235 staff and management personnel, cover a wide range of conservative issues. Opined a 2013 profile in the National Review: "Today, it's hard to identify a corner of economic or foreign policy that the Heritage Foundation has not touched, from abstinence education to sanctions on North Korea to zero-based budgeting."
In addition to its policy work, Heritage also has a 501(c)3 political action arm, the Heritage Action PAC, and runs the conservative news site Daily Signal, a revamped version of the think tank's "Foundry" blog.
Approach and Evolution
Feulner and Weyrich founded Heritage with the express goal of influencing congressional votes and policy decisions in real time. In the early 1970s, this was considered a novel approach for a Washington think tank. According to one account, the two decided to found the think tank after reviewing an AEI policy paper that had been published only after a key congressional vote. "The tardiness wasn't a blunder but a deliberate choice," recalled the conservative National Review. "AEI's president, William J. Baroody Sr., had told Weyrich that he had not wanted the study to influence the vote. Feulner was flabbergasted. He and Weyrich decided to build a new kind of think tank that would respond quickly to unfolding events."
Under Feulner's leadership, Heritage pioneered the practice of producing concise, ideologically informed "backgrounders" on complex legislative issues and—backed by an aggressive and well-funded marketing campaign—distributing them to members of Congress. Heritage thus helped launch a new breed of advocacy outfits driven by ideology and—increasingly—corporate largesse.
Heritage's approach has earned it many critics over the years, who have argued that the think tank's work lacks intellectual rigor. Commenting on Heritage's methods, Slate's Jacob Weisberg wrote in 1998: "Because of its combat mentality, Heritage has never been a place with very high standards. Like other conservative outfits, it loves the lingo of academic life. Its hallways are cluttered with endowed chairs, visiting fellows, and distinguished scholars. The conceit here is that as a PC Dark Age has overcome the universities, conservative think tanks have become the refuge of thought and learning. At Heritage in particular, this is a laugh. ... [It] is essentially a propaganda mill." Heritage, he concluded, "is focused on selling and promoting its views rather than on developing thoughtful or nuanced ones."
Despite its reputation for producing "index card" talking points, Heritage achieved its peak influence during the Ronald Reagan years, when it produced a 20-volume, 3,000-page policy handbook called the Mandate for Leadership for the incoming Reagan administration. Upon taking office, Reagan reportedly handed out copies of a paperback version of the report—which proposed, according to the Atlantic, "income-tax cuts, inner-city 'enterprise zones,' a presidential line-item veto, and a new Air Force bomber," among thousands of other proposals—to his Cabinet and staff. "By the end of Reagan's first year in office," continued the Atlantic, "60 percent of the Mandate's 2,000 ideas were being implemented, and the Republican Party's status as a hotbed of intellectual energy was ratified." In the ensuing years, Heritage became "a quasi-official arm of GOP administrations and Congresses," exercising influence on everything "from Reagan's missile-defense initiative to Clinton's welfare reform." Heritage even produced the idea for the "individual mandate" to purchase health insurance, though it subsequently led the conservative opposition to the idea after the Obama administration embraced it as a key plank of health care reform in 2009.
In the Obama era, however, as many Republican activists embraced the anti-establishment Tea Party movement, Heritage shifted towards a more confrontational approach with respect to the GOP caucus in Congress. Under the leadership of former Sen. Jim DeMint, a Tea Party firebrand from South Carolina who took over for Feulner in 2013, the group's Heritage Action PAC began aggressively targeting congressional Republicans who failed to fall in line with its positions, which appeared less oriented toward developing policy and more concerned with staking a rhetorical hard line in the polarized politics of the Obama years.
In 2013, the group launched pointed attacks on Republican members of Congress who balked at taking further votes to defund the Affordable Care Act (or "Obamacare"), a standoff that ultimately led to a partial government shutdown. The shift prompted outrage even from some staunch conservatives, with Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) declaring that Heritage had "lost credibility with the people that were most supportive of them" and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) accusing the think tank of "destroying the Republican Party."
The defund-Obamacare campaign, which came amid a prolonged drought in the publication of Heritage's Mandate series and a flip-flop against immigration reform, also sparked concerns from longtime Heritage loyalists that the group was contributing to the impression that the GOP itself lacked policy heft. Mickey Edwards, a founding trustee of the think tank, complained that the group had become "just another hack Tea Party kind of group" that had turned the conservative "intellectual ferment" into "nothing more than a political platform."
Embracing the foundation's new reputation, Heritage executive vice president Philip Truluck replied, "Our role is not to make politicians happy or angry. Our goal is to get the best policy adopted that we can for the country." Doubling down, in 2014 the group launched a conservative news site called the Daily Signal, which is designed to distill the group's famed congressional talking points and backgrounders for ordinary readers and conservative activists.
Heritage on Foreign Policy
Although better known for its advocacy of right-wing social and economic positions, the Heritage Foundation has served since the Reagan era as a reliable proponent of militarist U.S. defense policies as well. "The first principles on which the United States was founded must guide its foreign as well as its domestic policy," wrote Heritage's Ted Bromund in August 2010. "Defense, as the first duty of government, is the ultimate expression of sovereignty. Providing an effective defense is costly—even if all wise efficiencies are sought—but that cost must not be grudged or shirked, because it is by our defenses that we maintain our sovereignty against external enemies."
An August 2010 Heritage paper outlining "A Conservative Foreign Policy" mirrored typical right-wing language and an exceptionalist attitude toward U.S. policy abroad: "The United States was founded on the belief that people have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and self-governance and that government's first duty is to protect our freedom and security. America's history of advancing liberty and rights at home and abroad is unparalleled. Our leaders should not apologize for that history; nor should they deny us these rights or neglect to speak up for them. America is an exceptional nation conceived in liberty. Its foreign and defense policies must reflect that truth."
As it has since the Reagan presidency, Heritage is particularly keen on promoting controversial missile defense programs, stating on its website that the United States needs a "comprehensive ballistic missile defense system that employs a multilayered defense system of sea, ground, and space-based systems." In early 2011, its missile defense website featured an alarmist video that "tells the story of the very real threat foreign enemies pose to every one of us. No matter where on Earth a missile is launched, it would take 33 minutes or less to hit the U.S."
Heritage scholars also promote strengthening "anti-terror" ties with Israel and often defend Israel in the face of U.S. criticism of its actions. In an April 2010 op-ed lambasting then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for criticizing Israel's decision to approve a massive settlement expansion on the eve of a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, Heritage's Feulner wrote, "The United States is engaged in a long war against extremists. We can use all the help we can get. Too bad the Obama administration can't seem to tell which countries are with us, and which aren't."
Heritage has also echoed hardline talking points on Iran, accusing the country—despite U.S. intelligence estimates to the contrary—of developing nuclear weapons and insisting that negotiations over Tehran's nuclear enrichment program would fail. "The mullahs can't be sure that the outside world will allow them to keep oppressing their own people," claimed Heritage defense head James Carafano in 2014, "unless they get the bomb. Further, Tehran has an expansionist foreign policy that includes state-sponsored terrorism and threatening and bullying its neighbors. It needs an insurance policy, lest other states try to push back too hard. Becoming a nuclear-armed power is a core interest of the Iranian regime in Tehran. That's why it's near impossible to envision how negotiations will ever convince the mullahs to stop their drive for nuclear weapons."
Heritage experts and fellows opposed the nuclear deal reached between Iran and the P5+1 world powers in July 2015. Heritage senior fellow James Phillips wrote in October 2015 that the next U.S. presidential administration should not accept the agreement as a "fait accompli" and should "immediately cite any violations of the agreement by Iran, its continued support for terrorism, or other hostile policies as reason to abrogate the agreement." Phillips also argued that the next administration should "immediately reinstate all U.S. sanctions on Iran" that were lifted as part of the deal.
Numerous Heritage scholars have also argued that the United States should commit more troops to its fight against the self-proclaimed "Islamic State" group (ISIS). For instance, fellow Kim Holmes wrote in July 2015: "Moreover, we need to start thinking straight about what needs to be done to defeat ISIS. It can't be done without substantially more U.S. commitment and forces—to believe otherwise is mere wishful thinking."
During the Obama Presidency
Heritage has been a consistent critic of President Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda, accusing Obama of "apologizing" for America," encouraging a "sense of humility about American values and foreign policy achievements," and embracing "a value-neutral approach that rejects the concept of American exceptionalism."
In 2014, after a West Point speech in which Obama laid out a doctrine of limited military intervention in favor of multilateral efforts to fight terrorism and address other global challenges, Niles Gardner, head of Heritage's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, lambasted the president as "a lackluster commander-in-chief with an empty foreign policy vision." Invoking a host of hawkish priorities, Gardner criticized the Obama administration's withdrawal from Iraq and its planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, its diplomatic engagement with Iran, and its reluctance to intervene in conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. Gardner concluded that Obama is "the anti-Reagan, a figure content to lead from behind rather than project confident, assertive U.S. leadership—hardly the right signal to send to America's increasingly emboldened enemies and strategic competitors. … Obama has had every opportunity to learn from Reagan's success, but has sadly chosen instead to pursue a path of American decline and disengagement from the world."
Heritage has gone directly after the Obama administration's key foreign policy priorities, particularly with respect to international diplomacy. At a key juncture in the 2013-2014 negotiations over Iran's nuclear enrichment program, for example, Heritage writers expressed support for new sanctions sponsored by the hawkish Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), which critics said were designed to scuttle the talks by threatening punitive measures against Iran even as it agreed to restrictions on its enrichment capabilities while the talks were underway.
Heritage similarly mobilized against a new arms control agreement with Russia. In late 2010, it threatened to attack Republican senators who looked likely to vote for ratification of the New START agreement, an Obama administration priority that enjoyed broad, bipartisan support from the diplomatic community.
Heritage also laid claim to its continued leadership of the conservative movement during Obama's first term in 2011, when House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) released his budget plan, "A Roadmap for America's Future," which drew heavily on Heritage research. Ryan's budget pushed longstanding conservative goals, including privatizing Medicare and raising lower and middle class taxes while cutting upper income and corporate rates. Ryan's budget and the Heritage research it relied were lambasted for employing unrealistic projections of economic growth and for promoting tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans alongside social service cuts for the poorest.
Even as it argued for draconian cuts to social services in what it characterized as a debt crisis, Heritage vigorously opposed any potential cuts to the U.S. military budget, which is the world's largest by several factors. In a joint 2010 statement with the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative and American Enterprise Institute on "Defending Defense," the group argued that modest cuts then being proposed "would seriously undermine America's ability to meet the emerging security challenges-of-the-twenty-first-century."
Heritage scholars have heavily promoted increases to the U.S. military budget and have opposed the Obama administration's desire to couple a defense budget increase with budget increases for other government programs. Wrote senior Heritage policy analyst Justin Johnson in October 2015: "The $37 billion in non-defense spending that Obama wants is made up of things like the $6-billion increase for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the $1.3-billion increase for the Department of Labor. The president wants increases of $1 billion for the Department of Commerce, $3.6 billion for the Department of Education, $500 million for the EPA, $800 million for the Department of Interior, and on and on it goes."
Johnson added: "The White House wants Americans to believe that as the world burns, the defense budget should not be increased unless all of these overgrown bureaucracies get their pound of flesh. … Americans deserve a strong national security budget without having to pay billions extra to support Obama's liberal agenda."
Although Heritage took a smaller role than AEI in the George W. Bush administration—which employed some two-dozen AEI scholars—Heritage nevertheless served as an important bastion of support for the Bush administration's conservative agenda, including on foreign and defense issues.
A key example was the Heritage Homeland Defense Project, an initiative it started a few days after 9/11 and whose report, Defending the American Homeland, was published in January 2002. Although some of the study's recommendations included widely supported ideas such as a proposal to improve U.S. readiness for a potential bioterror attack, the report also used 9/11 to push for defense programs that would have little or no impact on preventing the sort of attacks perpetrated in New York and Washington, like deploying a national missile defense system. Missile defense had been a key item on the agenda of many Bush administration figures, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Participants in the study, which was chaired by L. Paul Bremer and Edwin Meese, included Pete Wilson, Daniel Goure, and Fred Ikle.
Some Heritage scholars also promoted the notion that the United States was at war "Islamofascists" in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. For instance, in a March 2005 "Heritage Lecture" on how to use language to shape the debate about the war on terror, Deroy Murdock argued, "Islamo-fascism is a worldwide phenomenon that already has touched this country and many of our allies. Yet Muslim extremists rarely have armies we can see, fighter jets we can knock from the sky, or an easily identifiable headquarters, such as the Reichs Chancellery of the 1940s or the Kremlin of the Cold War." Thus, said Murdock, it is important to properly identify "enemies" and the type of "war" the country is engaged in: "Is this a war on terror, per se? A war on terrorism? Or is it really a war on Islamo-fascism? It is really the latter, and we should say so."
Despite Heritage's later criticism of the Obama administration's preference for multilateralism, during the Bush years some Heritage figures promoted alliances and coalitions as useful mechanisms for circumventing the United Nations and prolonging an indefinite war on terror. James Jay Carafano and Sally McNamara, for example, wrote in a June 2007 Heritage "backgrounder" titled "Enduring Alliances Empower America's Long-War Strategy": "The threats of the new century are international in character and indeterminable in length, and they require an international response. Alone, the United States cannot win the long war against transnational terrorism, nor can it respond effectively to the other emerging national security concerns of the 21st century. America needs allies. … The focus of this strategy should be on building enduring alliances, not just 'coalitions of the willing.' As part of a comprehensive alliance-building strategy, the administration and Congress should undertake initiatives to establish international partnerships that more closely resemble those with America's traditional long-standing allies during the Cold War."
Heritage writers were largely supportive of both the Iraq War and the subsequent occupation. Echoing the Bush administration's rhetoric, Feulner wrote in 2004, "whether or not [Saddam Hussein] was formally allied with al-Qaida, there can be no doubt that Mr. Hussein was a staunch terrorist supporter. For example, he paid blood money to the families of Palestinian terrorists who had attacked Israeli targets. In this new world war, we can't afford to make distinctions between terrorist acts aimed at the United States and terrorist acts aimed at other democracies. As President Bush declared Sept. 20, 2001, 'Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.' That's the only way to fight this new war." In a prediction that proved to be grievously wrong, Feulner concluded, "Soon, American troops will pull out of both [Iraq and Afghanistan], leaving freedom and democracy where before there was only tyranny."
Heritage writers also endorsed the "surge" strategy and advocated strong executive powers to override congressional attempts to wind down or provide oversight to the war effort. James Phillips, for example, argued in a May 2007 Heritage "webmemo" that the Bush administration should fend off bipartisan efforts in Congress to set benchmarks for continued involvement in Iraq. "Congress continues to wrestle with the Bush administration over overdue emergency funding for the war in Iraq, with opponents of the administration's surge strategy seeking to transform proposed benchmarks for measuring progress in Iraq into mechanisms for forcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Rigid benchmarks would become an excuse for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, rather than a means to help Iraqis build a stable and secure country. If Congress insists on inserting rigid, binding benchmarks linked to U.S. troop levels into legislation funding the war effort, President Bush should veto the bill. No President can afford to accept congressional usurpation of his constitutional authority as commander in chief of the armed forces, a precedent that would hamstring the U.S. war effort not only in Iraq, but also in possible future wars. Tying benchmarks to a reduction of U.S. aid to the Iraqi government is also a bad idea but may be a necessary concession for the administration due to the political mood in Congress."
During the Bush administration, Heritage was also heavily involved in advocacy on Africa policy, according to Right Web contributor Conn Hallinan. In particular, wrote Hallinan in a July 2007 analysis, Heritage was instrumental in crafting the administration's AFRICOM policy, which established a military command for Africa aimed at shaping events on the continent according to U.S. wishes. He cited Heritage fellows James Jay Carafano and Nile Gardiner, who wrote in a 2003 Heritage analysis: "Creating an African Command would go a long way toward turning the Bush administration's well aimed strategic priorities for Africa into a reality."
Leadership and Funding
Heritage's president is former Sen. Jim DeMint, who succeeded longtime president Ed Feulner in 2013; its vice president for research is former Dick Cheney aide David Addington. Its board of trustees, chaired by "Wall Street stalwart" Thomas A. Saunders III, includes Feulner, right-wing publishing magnate Richard Scaife, neoconservative activist and anti-feminist writer Midge Decter, and Forbes publisher and former GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes, among several others.
Heritage commands considerable resources. In its 2013 financial report, the group reported just shy of $85 million in revenues and nearly $200 million in net assets. It claimed that some $61 million of its revenues had come from individual contributions, $13 million from foundations, and a little over $2 million from corporations, with investments, program revenue, and "rental and other income" rounding out the rest.
Over the years, Heritage's corporate donors have included Coors, General Motors, Ford Motors, Proctor & Gamble, Chase Manhattan Bank, Dow Chemical, Mobil Oil, and Smith Kline Corporation, among many others. According to Exxon Secrets, the oil conglomerate ExxonMobil donated some $780,000 to Heritage in the period 1998-2012. And according to Greenpeace, foundations linked to the Koch brothers donated over $4.5 million from 1997-2011.
During the 20-year period of 1985 to 2005, according to MediaTransparency.org, right-wing foundations including Scaife, Bradley, and Donner, among many others, gave more than $65 million to Heritage.
In July 2015, a series of Heritage internal emails and fundraising reports were leaked on the internet. The documents, all from 2008 and 2009, revealed Heritage's close relationship with Islamophobic donors as well as defense contractors like Lockheed Martin. One series of emails discussed Robert W. Ellis, a Heritage donor who had given the organization upwards of $250,000 by 2008. One email quoted Ellis as saying about Muslims: "You can kill 'em as fast as they're making 'em." Other emails revealed Heritage donors who believed that President Obama is a Muslim who was not born in the United States.
Wrote Gawker's J.K. Trotter about the email leak: "[T]hese call reports clearly suggest that Heritage does not consider a donor's outré views toward Barack Obama's background and Muslims (radical or otherwise) to be disqualifying, at least in terms of their ability to associate with Heritage and donate to the foundation."
Other emails highlighted how Heritage fought to restore government funding for Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor fighter jet after the Pentagon scrapped the project in 2009. The emails revealed that Heritage had at least 15 meetings with Lockheed representatives in 2008 and 2009. Reported the Intercept: "Heritage depicted its support for the F-22 as a matter of vital national security. But what the public didn't know is that Lockheed Martin, a corporate donor to the conservative think tank, met with Heritage officials on nearly a monthly basis to discuss the F-22 and other defense industry priorities."