The Heritage Foundation used to be a reliably conservative, respectable Washington think tank, one with which one could disagree without necessarily believing it to be in any way insane. It has become, instead, a parliament of hacks. It would be easy to blame former U.S. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who became the foundation’s chief in April, for this problem. And there would be an element of truth in that; DeMint is crazier than a bag of bugs. But the real problem began before DeMint, with an offshoot of the foundation called Heritage Action, and its CEO, a wealthy young ideologue named Michael Needham:
Needham is the 31-year-old CEO of Heritage Action, the relatively new activist branch of the Heritage Foundation, the storied Washington think tank that was one of the leaders of the conservative war of ideas ever since it provided the blueprint for Ronald Reagan’s first term. Although DeMint is Heritage’s president, it was Needham who had designed much of the defund Obamacare strategy. Beginning in 2010, when Heritage Action was founded, Needham pushed the GOP to use Congress’s power of the purse to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act. He formed a grassroots army, which he used to keep congressional Republicans in line. “They make six hundred phone calls and have a member of Congress in the fetal position,” says one GOP congressional staffer.
After months of furious lobbying, Needham sold, at most, 20 members of the House on his plan of attack. In the end, this was enough to cement the party line—and lead the GOP to a spectacular, deafening loss.
Sorting through the wreckage, Washington conservatives can barely contain their anger at Needham for his ideological inflexibility and aggressive, zero-sum tactics. “Their strategic sense isn’t very strong,” griped a prominent Republican lobbyist. “They’ve repeatedly been wrong about how to handle this.” Says a senior House Republican aide, “Mike Needham played a large role in defeating ideas that would have worked out better.”
But the wrath is not solely reserved for Needham; his employer now inspires plenty of disgust among conservatives, too. Increasingly in Washington, “Heritage” has come to denote not the foundation or the think tank, but Heritage Action, Needham’s sharp-elbowed operation. Instead of fleshing out conservative positions, says one Republican Senate staffer, “now they’re running around trying to get Republicans voted out of office. It’s a purely ideological crusade that’s utterly divorced from the research side.” (“If Nancy Pelosi could write an anonymous check to Heritage Action,” adds the House aide bitterly, “she would.”)
As a result, the Heritage Foundation has gone from august conservative think tank revered by Washington’s Republicans to the party’s loathed ideological commissar. “It’s sad, actually,” says one Republican strategist. “Everybody forgets that Heritage was always considered the gold standard of conservative, forward-looking thought. The emergence of Heritage Action has really transformed the brand into a more political organization.”
Needham’s strategy has also sparked a war inside the halls of the foundation itself, where many feel duped by the stealthy yet brutal way the Heritage Action takeover went down. Some now wonder whether the foundation can ever recover its reputation as a font of ideas. “I don’t think any thoughtful person is going to take the Heritage Foundation very seriously, because they’ll say, How is this any different from the Tea Party?” says Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman and a founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation. Looking at the organization he helped to create, Edwards finds it unrecognizable. “Going out there and trying to defeat people who don’t agree with us never occurred to us,” said Edwards. “It’s alien.”
So how did someone so young get into such a position of responsibility?
Like all good revolutionaries, Michael Needham had a sterling upbringing, the kind that allows a young man to pursue ideological purity free from worry about consequence or reality. Needham’s mother is a former Saks Fifth Avenue executive; his father runs a boutique investment bank. The future Tea Party rabble-rouser grew up on the Upper East Side. He attended Collegiate, a prestigious New York prep school, then Williams. As a political science major and, eventually, the editor of the college newspaper, Needham loved to provoke his liberal classmates, arguing that Social Security was unnecessary and that the minimum wage hurt the working poor. “It’s amazing how little reflection he’s given to his privilege,” says a classmate. “It was all kind of a game to him. It was an experiment in winning.”
After Needham graduated from Williams in 2004, Bill Simon Jr., a former California Republican gubernatorial candidate and fellow Williams alum, helped Needham secure the introductions that got him a job at the foundation. Ambitious and hard-working, he was promoted, in six months, to be [now-retired Heritage co-founder Edwin] Feulner’s chief of staff. According to a former veteran Heritage staffer, Needham is intelligent but “very aggressive”: “He is the bull in the china closet, and he feels very comfortable doing that.” (“I consider him a friend,” says the college classmate, “but he’s a huge [expletive].”) In 2007, Needham, whose father has given generous donations to both Rudy Giuliani and the Heritage Foundation, went to work for Giuliani’s presidential campaign. When the campaign folded, Needham followed his father’s footsteps to Stanford Business School and then came back, at Feulner’s bequest, to run Heritage Action.
Needham, who in his time at Heritage, had been a proponent of ramping up the foundation’s lobbying efforts, was also given a lieutenant. He wasn’t the seasoned lobbyist who might be expected to keep tabs on his young boss, but a 31-year-old evangelical named Tim Chapman who had a few years experience working on the Hill. Heritage elders viewed Chapman, a boyish young man with freckles and strawberry blond hair, as the golden retriever to Needham’s pitbull. The two were installed in a townhouse down the street from Heritage headquarters, which soon came to be known, dismissively, as “the Frat House.” A young staff of about a dozen people worked there, hanging around in easy chairs, tossing a football around. The foundation scholar recalls stopping by and noting that the conversations at the Frat House sounded “more the way you’d expect a bunch of interns sitting around to sound, talking politics, trying to figure things out.”
That’s right, kids: The Republican Party, which likes to market itself as the grownups in the room, is letting both its political efforts and the keystone of its policy-development infrastructure be destroyed by a spoiled child. And we wonder why they can’t govern.