The Heritage Foundation Changes Tune On Wielding Government Power

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Laurel Duggan Social Issues and Culture Reporter
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  • The Heritage Foundation, a major conservative think tank, has begun to align with a new brand of conservatism that’s more populist, more focused on cultural issues, less interventionist and more open to wielding government power. 
  • The shift has coincided with some staff turnover, including high ranking policy staff who disagreed with the organization’s new direction.  
  • “What’s happening on the right is a recognition that, A) we have a limited amount of time to devolve power from D.C. and put it back in the hands of the American people and B), that we’ve gone through too many years …of conservative elected officials not wielding the power that they possess,” Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The Heritage Foundation, a preeminent conservative think tank founded in 1973, is leaning into a new, more populist vision of conservatism that’s focused on domestic and cultural issues and more open to wielding government power to advance the conservative cause.

Heritage has a reputation in Washington D.C. for promoting Republican orthodoxy on free trade, foreign policy interventionism and restraint on the part of the government when it comes to the regulation of businesses, but the organization is changing adjusting to changing times, its president, Kevin Roberts, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. It’s promoting a more restrained approach to foreign policy and a more active government role in the regulation of big tech, while moving away from the conventional wisdom that conservatives shouldn’t use government power to advance their interests.

“Heritage is adapting to the times like any healthy institution on the right is doing,” Roberts told the DCNF. “What’s happening on the right is a recognition that, A) we have a limited amount of time to devolve power from D.C. and put it back in the hands of the American people and B), that we’ve gone through too many years, I would argue that it’s upwards of two generations, of conservative elected officials not wielding the power that they possess.”

Roberts spoke with the DCNF at the National Conservatism conference in Miami, a meet-up focused on the new direction of the American right. The Heritage Foundation isn’t “establishment,” he told the DCNF: its senior leadership, its vast network of supporters and Roberts himself are all “zero percent establishment.”

Instead, he views the role of Heritage as influencing elected leaders, some of whom may identify as establishment Republicans and some of whom may not. (RELATED: ‘We Rejected The Elites’: DeSantis Touts Policy Victories In Fiery Speech)

“What’s happening at Heritage was percolating prior to my arrival,” he told the DCNF. “It was very clear when I got there that there was a frustration in the movement about no conservative organization issuing a thoughtful set of guidelines on big tech, for example. Obviously we’re having a similar conservation in the movement about foreign policy.”

The changes taking place at Heritage weren’t welcomed by all staff members: several high ranking Heritage scholars exited the organization amid policy changes, including Luke Coffey, who left his role as director of the Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy after a feud with the organization over its opposition to sending $40 billion to Ukraine, according to The Dispatch.

Roberts acknowledged that several scholars left in response to policy changes, but said those individuals were “good people” who were still welcome at Heritage and in his own home.

Klon Kitchen, former director of technology policy at Heritage, accused Roberts of following the “fringes” of the movement after Roberts’ speech at NatCon.

“And there you have it, an explicit acknowledgment that @Heritage no longer leads the conservative movement, but is following its fringes,” Klon wrote.

Roberts told the DCNF he attended the conference because, as the leader of Heritage, it’s his job to attend a broad range of conservative events and to have conversations with people throughout the movement, even if Heritage policies don’t perfectly align with those of the National Conservatism organizers. He stressed that the purpose of conferences like NatCon was to discuss policies face-to-face rather than publicly feuding on Twitter.

“People should read an entire speech before they comment on it like an eighth grader,” he told the DCNF. “All of my predecessors have always been present at every conference having to do with conservatism.”

The Heritage Foundation can’t endorse or financially support political candidates, but Roberts did say that an emerging class of Republican leaders are promising and strongly aligned with the new direction of conservatism.

“We have a lot of people currently in office who I think are really promising: Gov. DeSantis, Sen. Scott, Sen. Rubio, Sen. Hawley. We don’t agree with everything those senators say, but we believe they represent where conservatism is going, and it is a conservatism that is more active when we’re in power,” Roberts said. “When we’re in power, we need to dismantle the administrative state. DeSantis understands that in spades.”

Sentinel Action Fund, a super-PAC affiliated with Heritage Action, recently announced $5 million in independent expenditures to help Republican Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters‘ election bid.

The new crop of congressional candidates are not just politicians, but are also cultural leaders, Roberts said, mentioning J.D. Vance. The comment was in response to a question about the recent Heritage Action contribution to Masters.

Update: This article has been updated to more accurately describe Heritage Action’s independent expenditures in the Arizona Senate race.

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