Can the Heritage Foundation Successfully Navigate the Post-Trump Era?

Its choice of a new president will tell us much about the direction the conservative think tank is headed.

What does it mean to be a conservative institution in the aftermath of the Trump years? That’s a question the Heritage Foundation, long the most prominent “movement conservative” think tank in Washington, is currently trying to answer. And it’s a question that became urgent earlier this year, when Heritage President Kay Cole James announced she would step down after three years. Now, the search for her replacement is nearing its end.

People familiar with the search stress that nothing has yet been finalized; Heritage’s trustees have not voted to approve a candidate. (Heritage Foundation representatives declined to comment for this piece.) But sources tell The Dispatch that a frontrunner for the job is Kevin Roberts, who currently serves as CEO of another think tank: the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

In some respects, Roberts would be a swerve of a pick. Many others who sources say were considered for the role have been fixtures in D.C. conservatism for years, if not decades—former Trump chief of staff and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, former Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia, lobbyist and American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp. Meanwhile, at the start of 2016, Roberts was running the show at Wyoming Catholic College, a tiny school with an undergrad enrollment of 200. He first came aboard at TPPF as executive vice president that year, and has mostly (and understandably) busied himself with state policy in the years since, rather than building his brand in D.C.

But it’s easy to see why a guy like Roberts would appeal to an institution like Heritage trying to navigate the post-Trump moment. On the one hand, he’s conversant in the iconoclastic and militant language of the new populist right, with its constant undercurrent of resentment toward political and cultural elites. “What Trump captured was the absolute irritation, the frustration that Americans have with the elites in Washington who wake up each day trying to tell us what to do,” he said during a TPPF event with Texas Rep. Chip Roy last month. When speaking of the current government in D.C., Roberts refers not to the Biden-Harris administration, but to the Biden-Harris regime.

But unlike many populists on the new right, TPPF under Roberts has also maintained its longtime fierce devotion to individual liberties and a small-government approach to policymaking, along with most of the old policy planks of fusionism: old-school jeremiads about debt and deficits, prominent advocacy for school choice and a secure border and America’s energy sector, suspicion of a constantly expanding social safety net. (Their libertarian streak has shown most prominently in the issue of criminal justice reform: Former TPPF President Brooke Rollins worked in the Trump White House as assistant to the president and, later, director of the Domestic Policy Council, and was instrumental in the passage of the First Step Act, the Trump administration’s major piece of criminal justice legislation.)

If Roberts is the pick, he’ll have his work cut out for him. A policy juggernaut through the sunny decades of Reaganite fusionism and a muscly ideological enforcer during the Tea Party years, Heritage has struggled to find a place for itself in the new Republican Party of Donald Trump—a movement overwhelmingly beholden to the whims of a single leader and with a resurgent populist flank defining itself “against the dead conservative consensus.”  

“When I worked on the Hill, when I worked in the White House, if I wanted to know where conservatism was on an issue, I would look for the Heritage issue briefs on that issue,” said Tevi Troy, who worked in the Bush White House as a domestic policy adviser and then as deputy secretary of health and human services. “It doesn’t mean I always went along with it, agreed with it, but it was a barometer of where conservatives were. And now—and this is not all Heritage’s fault, because the conservative movement has split in many ways … now it’s not so clear that a Heritage piece tells you what the standard position of conservatism is on any given issue.”

According to Troy, part of the problem was Heritage’s decision in the Tea Party era to expand from the think tank game to aggressively lobbying Republicans to support or oppose legislation through its new sister organization: Heritage Action. By many measures, the launch of Heritage Action was a success, massively expanding Heritage’s political influence. But some argue that it also hurt Heritage’s ability to carry the ideological flag for the conservative movement.

“It got more explicitly political as opposed to ideological,” Troy said. “It was about how Republicans in Congress—and Democrats too, to the extent they care about a Heritage scorecard—how they are voting in Congress, as opposed to what is the right position. … A politician is an imperfect vessel for an ideological standard.”

Arguably, by leaning into scoring the political fights of the early 2010s, Heritage had painted itself into a corner by the time Donald Trump came on the scene: a policy ad-libber without longtime ties to the movement who enforced unanimity of a very different kind.

People on the right now “have a much looser idea of what conservatism means,” Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review told The Dispatch. “And so this kind of purity enforcement just doesn’t have the same purchase. The whole idea of the scorecard is, we all agree on what conservatism is, we can line people up based on how conservative they are, and there’s kind of a sense that it’s also a moral judgment: If you’ve got a lower rank, it’s because you’re weak and soft. People still worry about the weak and soft part, but that’s become detached from any particular political standard.”

While Heritage’s standing in D.C. conservatism has arguably slipped, its other historic strength—unparalleled levels of national grassroots funding and support—remains undiminished. Heritage currently boasts 525,000 donating members—its best year by this metric since 2014—including 80,000 new ones this year, according to a source familiar.

But it’s one thing to rally right-wing opposition to a Democratic administration, and another to lead the way when it’s Republicans’ turn to run things again. What sort of role Heritage will play when that time comes remains to be seen.

“I know that Heritage seemed to work well at a particular moment in time, when you did have more unity on the right, the so-called fusionist consensus,” Troy said. “But that doesn’t mean there can’t be an important role for it now, when we’re trying to decide what conservatism is in the future.”