Heritage hackery, nationally and in Maine, is not good for anyone

In looking for a way forward, a number of Republicans and conservatives have argued that they need to be more grounded in the realities of America today.

Besides better grasping political and demographic realities, they should regain a concern with real policy solutions, based in authentic policy analysis.

Unfortunately, when it comes to some purported policy groups, they’re still off on the wrong track.

With Jim DeMint leaving the Senate to lead the Heritage Foundation, this think tank becomes even more political and less of an actual policy operation.

The Heritage Foundation was once a real policy shop.

Conservative analysts and researchers looked at policy problems and tried to figure out solutions. While guided by their values and commitment to market-based approaches, they used best practices in research methods,

Thus they developed core ideas behind Romneycare and Obamacare — maintaining private insurance companies, developing exchanges on which to buy insurance, and bringing everyone into the health insurance market via a mandate and subsidies to those who could not afford it.

Those days are gone. The Heritage Foundation tries to look like it does real analysis, but its presentations and studies are easily debunked, due to their lack of context and methodological problems.

Heritage also adopted over-the-top rhetoric. It went from creating the mandate to claiming it was socialistic and un-American. Heritage Action, their political arm, put out a video after Obama was elected with frightening images and Wagnerian music.

More broadly, the Heritage Foundation is part of a dynamic noted by former George W. Bush speechwriter, David Frum.

Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.

Looking at DeMint’s move to the Heritage Foundation, conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin is appalled.

[T]his is very bad indeed for Heritage. Even DeMint would not claim to be a serious scholar. He is a pol. He’s a pol whose entire style of conservatism –  all or nothing, no compromise, no accounting for changes in public habits and opinions — is not true to the tradition of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk and others. By embracing him, Heritage, to a greater extent than ever before, becomes a political instrument in service of extremism, not a well-respected think tank and source of scholarship.

Those who don’t read Rubin may not know that she has tended to be a cheerleader for Republicans during elections, giving them virtually no criticisms. That she is so unhappy with this is particularly striking.

In Maine, the Maine Heritage Policy Center and its Maine Wire have been quite a bit quieter in recent months.

Of course, now that Republicans lost their majorities in both houses of the Maine Legislature, the MHPC won’t have the impact they did in the heady days after Gov. LePage was sworn in, along with Republican majorities.

In 2011, MHPC went all in on ending election-day registration. MHPC put out highly flawed opinion surveys that purportedly showed Mainers didn’t support the practice and involved the group’s director as a public spokesperson. Campaign finance reports show MHPC listed staff time as in-kind contributions. Their position lost by twenty percentage points.

Republican office-holders, at least some of them, may be wary of relying on what MHPC promotes. The health care proposal from MHPC featured in 2012 legislative races and likely contributed to Republican defeats.

Now they put out little original content, relying a good deal on press releases from the Heritage Foundation and similar groups. Otherwise, they mostly publish their own commentaries.

Policy analysis, of the sort done by serious think tanks, is strikingly absent.

Frankly, this is not good for anyone.

Whatever one’s politics and values, we all benefit from rigorous policy analysis and new ideas developed by people with differing values and political perspectives.

Highly politicized, hackish approaches to policy may seem to make political sense to those who develop and promote them.

But ultimately these hurt those groups and undermine our ability to have truly useful policy discussions and make effective decisions.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.