The Anti-Coopting Business
“I don’t know of one conservative victory that’s happened
in this town in decades that hasn’t happened without
principled conservative pressure coming from the right”
As the Washington Post observed, the “frantic showdown” over our nation’s debt ceiling “looked like the haphazard escalation of a typical partisan standoff” except that “It wasn’t.”
Instead, it turned into an epic struggle between newly-elected conservatives and an entrenched Washington Establishment. Conservatives succeeded in changing the rhetoric in Washington, but the policy gains remained elusive. In a piece for The Weekly Standard, Michael Warren provides an informative overview of Heritage Action’s role in the debt debate and how we continue to push back against the “GOP establishment.”
“I really think there’s two sides to politics,” said Mike Needham, the 29-year-old CEO of Heritage Action for America, at a Capitol Hill restaurant in April. “There’s getting the right people elected, and there’s holding them accountable.” Needham invoked Trent Lott—veteran of 16 years in the House, 18 years in the Senate, and numerous roles in Republican leadership—who warned in July 2010, shortly before several “Jim DeMint disciples” (aka hardcore conservatives) were expected to win seats and descend on Washington: “As soon as they get here,” said Lott, “we need to co-opt them.”
Needham and his colleagues see themselves as being “in the anti-co-opting business,” he said. And business is booming. As the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, Heritage Action has been lobbying members of Congress to push for the most conservative outcomes to the most critical legislative debates, including the recent debt ceiling standoff. That hardline stance has frustrated House speaker John Boehner and the rest of the GOP leadership.
Heritage Action’s work alongside the Republican Study Committee (RSC, the caucus of House conservatives) and the Tea Party helped move the House debate further to the right. But the Heritage Foundation’s newfound influence in politics—not just policy—has rankled a few Republicans otherwise in good conservative standing, especially since Heritage Action announced it would be scoring certain votes. As any incumbent candidate knows, a “bad” score from an influential interest group is perfect campaign ad fodder for primary opponents.
“When Heritage wins, we win, and when we win, Heritage wins,” Chapman says. “It’s good for Heritage for us to be lobbying hard on the Hill for their policies and achieving victories. And when they win intellectually, it makes it easier for us to lobby on the Hill. So we work together in that way.”
Needham says their goal is similar to that of the GOP leadership: “pulling the country to the right.” “There are a lot of times when our interests are aligned,” he says. “We have an obligation, where our interests aren’t aligned, to push them to be bolder.”
There is no question the debate in Washington has shifted. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) told the Washington Post:
Would Democrats have ever agreed if they thought the new freshman class was going to roll over? No. The freshmen made our hand so much stronger. You had a fear of how far they would go. I’m sure the president looks back, too, and was fearful. But in negotiations, isn’t that the best thing?
Those freshmen and conservatives, the ones praised by McCarthy, were often the target of derogatory quotes from anonymous leadership aides. Washington has always been a lagging indicator of where the American people are, and this is no exception. Americans recognize the need that serious reforms are necessary if we are to save the American dream for our children and grandchildren. Those reforms will not simply happen, conservatives must fight and challenge their lawmakers to demonstrate a willingness to stand up and do the same.
As Heritage Action’s Tim Chapman told the Weekly Standard, “I worked for three different senators. Never once did someone come to them and offer them [an incentive] to vote for a good piece of conservative policy.”