The Heritage Foundation Might Be Shedding Some Of Its Crazy Soon

Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation, gestures during a news conference on immigration reform Monday, May 6, 2013, in Washington.
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2013 hasn’t exactly been a banner year for the Heritage Foundation, Washington’s most well-known and influential conservative think tank.

In its first year under former senator and tea party godfather Jim DeMint, there was a growing consensus — and concern — that the foundation once renowned for its intellectual rigor might now be more of a political advocacy outlet than a home for scholarly research, albeit of the conservative variety.

Heritage saw a study on the supposed cost of immigration reform blasted by those within its own ideological sphere as methodologically shoddy. One of its authors was forced to resign after revelations of anti-immigrant views in his earlier work surfaced. Its Obamacare research has come under scrutiny for its inherent bias, as TPM has reported.

Those unforced slip-ups, and its advocacy arm’s growing reputation as a bully toward any kind of moderation, have started to call the foundation’s reputation into question on Capitol Hill. Conservatives lamented to the New Republic that Heritage had become a political action group “with a research division,” burning bridges with the House GOP, something totally foreign to “the gold standard of conservative, forward-looking thought” that it used to be. The foundation’s $82 million budget was reportedly being scaled back, with more money flowing to the advocacy efforts that have so chafed Hill Republicans.

That’s why Heritage’s most recent hire could mark a potential return to normalcy and respectability for the foundation.

The new man is Stephen Moore, most recently of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, who is joining Heritage as its chief economist. He has previously worked at Heritage in the 1980’s, the Cato Institute, and Club for Growth before spending the last nine years at the Journal.

Moore’s conservative bonafides are real. But he’s also been outspoken on several issues, particularly immigration, where he’s directly clashed with the new Heritage status quo. A 1997 piece that he wrote for the Cato Institute, for example, directly contradicts part of last year’s controversial Heritage report on the financial burden of immigrants to taxpayers.

For his part, Moore told TPM this week that he believes he can bring an “additional respectability” to Heritage’s output. He’ll be overseeing his own separate research center within Heritage, which should be announced in the next few weeks, where he said he’ll have significant autonomy to conduct his own research on regulatory and fiscal issues.

“I don’t agree 100 percent with everything that Heritage has done or said,” Moore said. “One of my big goals is to continue to ensure that the advocacy is really based on the soundest economic research, to ensure that the credibility is there in everything that’s produced here.”

Outsider observers in the conservative sphere were emphatic: Moore’s hiring could be a turning point for Heritage, both in general and particularly on immigration, this Congress’s best shot — however remote — to leave a meaningful legislative mark.

Alex Nowrasteh, immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank, who has called the Senate-passed immigration bill “a solid improvement over the current immigration system,” told TPM that Moore’s presence “bodes very well for an ideological policy shift” at Heritage. He compared the move to House Speaker John Boehner hiring the top immigration analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center to his staff in December, which reform advocates also viewed as a potential turning of the tide on the issue.

“It absolutely portends a change over there at the Heritage Foundation,” he said. “Talk in D.C. is very cheap, but when people start shifting their staffs that shows they’re aligning with a different position, that actually means something.”

“Steve Moore going to Heritage reflects a return to normality.”

Moore’s hiring also earned the endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is a key component of the tenuous business-labor alliance that was the lynchpin for the bipartisan support for the Senate-passed immigration reform bill. The Chamber has been actively urging conservatives in the House to move on the bill.

“I’ve known Steve for a long time. He is a smart guy and Heritage is lucky to have him,” Randy Johnson, senior vice president of labor, immigration, and employee benefits at the Chamber, said in a statement to TPM.

Moore himself wasn’t ready to declare that his presence would result in a dramatic overhaul of Heritage’s position on immigration. “We’ll see,” he said, when asked if a significant refinement should be expected. He acknowledged that the question of undocumented immigrants already in the country remained a difficult one for the conservative base, without an obvious solution in his eyes, and expressed skepticism about the comprehensive bill that passed the Senate last year, comparing it unfavorably to Obamacare. That leaves the House-preferred approach of a series of piecemeal bills as the more viable option.

But Moore also re-emphasized his pro-immigration stance and pledged to work at Heritage to develop a “pro-growth” immigration policy. If that work leads to a change in Heritage’s position, Cato’s Nowrasteh said the resulting impact would be “titanic.”

“What I’m going to try to work with Heritage on is developing a pro-growth immigration solution. I hope to help fashion a pro-immigration position,” Moore said. “I’ve said that I think immigration is so key to our future economy, and to the extent that Heritage can be instrumental in making sure we’re getting the highest quality immigrants, that is really an essential component of our economy.”

To be clear, Moore’s homecoming won’t send Heritage rushing to embrace the Senate bill, as he acknowledged. And the politics of the moment require even ardent opponents of immigration reform to couch their opposition carefully in pro-reform language. But Moore’s stated openness to exploring common ground on immigration is the first sign of light from DeMint’s conservative empire, an abrupt turn from the ideological intransigence that had become the norm.

Photo: Sean Hackbarth/Flickr

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