Jim DeMint’s ouster from The Heritage Foundation came as a shock to the hundreds of scholars and staffers who’ve seen the organization’s political influence grow thanks to DeMint’s controversial decision to align the leading conservative think tank closely with Donald Trump.
But interviews with over a dozen sources at the center of the drama suggest Heritage’s stewards — particularly DeMint’s predecessor, Ed Feulner, and Feulner’s sharp-elbowed protégé, Mike Needham — became convinced that DeMint was incapable of renewing the foundation’s place as an intellectual wellspring of the conservative movement.
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Days of speculation, tension, and internal bickering came to a close on Tuesday: The organization’s board members voted unanimously to remove DeMint from his post as president, a decision first reported by POLITICO last week. Feulner, who presided over the institution for 37 years, will be named interim president and to preside over a search for a permanent replacement.
"After a comprehensive and independent review of the entire Heritage organization, the Board determined there were significant and worsening management issues that led to a breakdown of internal communications and cooperation," the board president Thomas Saunders III said in a statement. "While the organization has seen many successes, Jim DeMint and a handful of his closest advisers failed to resolve these problems."
Ironically, it was Feulner’s decision in 2010 to create an advocacy organization, Heritage Action, and to install Needham atop it, that sowed the seeds of DeMint’s fall. Though the think tank and the advocacy arm are legally separate entities, several sources familiar with the institution’s internal dynamics say that both organizations became increasingly focused on mediating fights among congressional Republicans rather than on generating policy ideas. The problem existed before DeMint took the helm of Heritage in 2013, but has mushroomed since, Heritage insiders said.
But if DeMint wasn’t the source of the problem, sources say, board members concluded he wasn’t the solution, either.
“When DeMint went in, Heritage became very political. It changed from a highly respected think tank to just a partisan tool and more ideological — more of a tea party organization than a think tank,” said Mickey Edwards, one of the organization’s founding trustees and a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma. “Hopefully, Feulner, if he takes over, can help reestablish Heritage as what it used to be during the Reagan years.”
Disputes over the organization’s mission stretch back a year. In many ways, they reflect the larger intellectual and organizational disarray among conservatives exposed by the rise of Trump, and exacerbated by his victory. Many of the institutions that have sustained the conservative movement are grappling with their role at a time when conservatism is on the wane — and with how to work constructively with a populist in the White House.
The Heritage Foundation on Friday issued a blanket directive to its employees not to comment on the leadership change and canceled all of the weekly meetings it hosts with Republican aides on Capitol Hill.
Tuesday’s events were the culmination of repeated clashes between DeMint, on one side, and Feulner and Needham on the other. DeMint, who at one point suggested he would retire this year, announced at a senior management meeting several months ago that he intended to extend his contract. Even at that point, his relationship with Needham had become so strained that the news caused Needham to throw a chair across the room after DeMint left, according to a Heritage staffer.
Over the past several days, dueling narratives about the events leading to the board’s decision have emerged. DeMint’s defenders, legion on Capitol Hill, say the 35-year-old Needham, known as a political wunderkind, orchestrated DeMint’s ouster with an eye to taking control of the foundation in the coming years. Heritage Action has hammered Republicans from the right and Needham is widely disliked among GOP lawmakers.
A senior Republican Senate aide said Needham had been laying the groundwork to overthrow DeMint for more than a year and set about to convince board members one by one.
“I think a lot of board members are being told what Mike Needham thinks they want to hear,” the person said.
Needham’s allies say that DeMint was a disappointing steward who led a once-venerable but declining organization into further chaos. A member of the board insisted that, as of Tuesday, the board had no clear candidate in mind to replace DeMint, and that Needham had not engineered his removal.
"In my view, it’s about the institution," the board member said.
The Needham camp insists that, despite his bombastic public profile, both he and Feulner grew increasingly concerned with the decline of The Heritage Foundation’s role as the brain trust of the Republican Party. DeMint’s and Needham’s motives "are the opposite of what you would expect based on their institutions and positions,” said one Republican policy maven — with Needham, the advocacy head, concerned about the think tank’s position as an idea generator, and DeMint, the think tank head, inclined to transform it into an activist organization.
Needham did not respond to a request for comment.
In its statement about the firing of DeMint, the board stressed that Heritage was bigger than any single leader. "This was a difficult and necessary decision for the Board to take. As trustees, we have governance and oversight responsibilities for this organization and our 500,000 members. We were compelled to take action. Heritage has never been about one individual, but rather the power of conservative ideas. Heritage is bigger than any one person," the statement read.
Feulner, 75, helped launch The Heritage Foundation in 1973. He mentored Needham, remains a Heritage Foundation board member — and is indisputably the central player in the drama.
“Without Ed Feulner’s backing it would be impossible to get rid of DeMint,” said a former Heritage staffer and current GOP Senate aide. “That’s the linchpin of how everything began to unravel.”
DeMint’s tenure was fraught from the outset. As a politician rather than an academic, the tea party renegade was something of an unorthodox person for the position. According to a well-placed source, while DeMint’s 2013 hiring was spearheaded by board chairman Tom Saunders, other board members were skeptical of the choice. Saunders declined to comment when reached by phone on Monday.
Several of the foundation’s most prominent scholars left when DeMint came on board, including economists William Beach and J.D. Foster, and Matt Spalding, its director of American studies.
“DeMint changed how it functioned. It’s not expert-heavy anymore. Under DeMint, he wanted the think tank to take a political position and ask the policy people to find out how to support it. His vision was different,” said a former Heritage staffer.
In an unusual move for a think-tank president, DeMint campaigned with Needham for a government shutdown to prevent the funding of Obamacare. The New York Times characterized the change in early 2014: “In the DeMint Era at Heritage, a shift from Policy to Politics.”
Though Needham had no compunction about wielding a political bludgeon in public, he told associates privately that the government shutdown had forced him to the realization that the GOP needed alternative policy proposals on hand — and that it lacked them.
Needham also clashed repeatedly with DeMint over the foundation’s approach to Trump during the presidential primary, according to several sources who spoke to both men.
“Mike was really pushing for Heritage to come out for [Sen. Ted] Cruz and criticize Trump, and it turned out that DeMint was perfectly fine with Trump,” one of the sources said. “It’s surprising, because DeMint was totally vindicated.”
It became clear to some Heritage staffers at a recent donor retreat in San Diego that change was afoot. As major donors stood in a ballroom at the luxurious Fairmont Grand Del Mar to praise DeMint, pledging thousands of dollars to bankroll the organization, a group of board members had already decided his days were numbered.
One source said DeMint was temporarily relieved of his duties as president of Heritage last Wednesday by a handful of board members, and that Tuesday’s vote would make it official among the wider board.
DeMint allies are also on the way out. James Wallner, a DeMint confidant, was placed on administrative leave on Monday after adding his own commentary in a series of tweets — to the ongoing leadership battle.
“An opaque process where the pivotal players aren’t clear and people can’t be held accountable for their choices is no way to make decisions,” he wrote.
Other DeMint aides are expected to leave the think tank in the coming weeks, too, either by their own volition or as part of a broader housecleaning effort to rid the organization of DeMint loyalists.
At the root of the drama is a longing among conservatives — particularly acute now that Republicans control both the White House and Congress — for a return to the days when their institutions and ideas enjoyed a singular influence in Washington and across the country.
In 1981, a newly elected President Ronald Reagan distributed The Heritage Foundation’s 3,000-page set of policy recommendations, known as the Mandate for Leadership, at his first Cabinet meeting. As thousands of the foundation’s recommendations were adopted, they made an indelible mark on the administration.
The passing of the baton back to Feulner marks an attempt, both literally and figuratively, to return to those days.
“Heritage’s academic credentials were much greater under Feulner than DeMint. Hopefully, Feulner, if he takes over, can help reestablish Heritage as what it used to be during the Reagan years,” Edwards said.