UNITED STATES – FEBRUARY 10: Kay Cole James, president of the Heritage Foundation, conducts a discussion on the diversity of thought in the black community, in the Capitol Visitor Center during Black History Month on Monday, February 10, 2020. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
I served four years at the Heritage Foundation as a lawyer, a tenure that began under longtime president Ed Feulner and continued under former Senator Jim DeMint. I have spoken to many who have spent decades at the Foundation, which is one of the flagship institutions on the right. For years I have heard insider complaints and concerns about the direction of Heritage from top management and donors, all the way down to rank and file employees. Thus it was with great interest, although no real surprise, that I learned yesterday that Kay Cole James, the three-year president of the Heritage Foundation, has left, along with the senior vice president, the virulent Never Trumper, Kim Holmes.
So, whither Heritage? As someone who has served in nonprofit management and in the Trump White House helping select political appointees from the secretarial level on down, I can say that hiring is hard. It’s doubly difficult to determine what precisely the Board of Trustees was thinking in removing James and Holmes. Undoubtedly, a search committee will be convened to find a new president for the institution, but whether this will be a genuine effort or whether there is a replacement candidate already on deck remains to be seen.
For her part, James—who earned well over a half million per year, in addition to other perks, such as travel, a residence near Union Station, and very likely the ability to keep side income from, say, serving on a Google board—issued a statement that her team “accomplished everything we set out to do.” What was this? In the last few years, there was really only one event that brought Heritage into the national spotlight: Google placed James on its new “Advanced Technology External Advisory Council,” and then Google rapidly disbanded the entire advisory committee following woke pushback against her. This event was illustrative.
For years, Heritage and the institutional center-right have played footsie with big business. The James appointment was touted as progress on the tech issue, and her removal elicited an, if tepid, highly revealing response. James wrote: “How can Google now expect conservatives to defend it against anti-business policies from the left that might threaten its very existence?” Clearly, Google and Heritage saw her appointment as serving free-marketism in the abstract, rather than as providing weight on behalf of social conservatism in a kind of right-wing version of corporate social responsibility.
In an era of critical race theory dogmatism wielding unmatched power and authority, having representative social conservatives on Fortune 500 boards would indeed go a long way to maintaining peace between labor and capital. In any rapprochement like this, the question should be who is bringing what to the table, however, and it seems to me Google came out clearly ahead in this case. Google spent some money (perhaps some of it went to James, perhaps some to the Foundation, perhaps to both), and in return Heritage allowed Google to tamp down populist energy by assuaging the fears of the middle Americans who trust the Heritage brand. This isn’t building a movement—this is exploiting a movement.
Other than that, I can think of no time Heritage really made the news during James’s tenure, although not for lack of trying. There are numerous opinion editorials and media hits by James seeking to redirect social conservatives from the fight against liberalism and towards an alliance with the woke left. For example, there is a Fox News piece by her:
How many more black people must die, and how many more times will statements of sympathy have to be issued? How many times will protests have to occur? How many more committees will have to be formed until America admits that racism is still a problem in this country?
There were numerous other pieces, including a puff interview in the Washingtonian, all to the same effect: Conservatives need to apologize for a history of racism.
Again, like the response to Google, the problem with these pieces isn’t precisely that they are wrong in any ideological sense, but that they are tone-deaf and that the timing is wrong. In politics, timing—when you say something—is often even more critical than what you say. These overtures to woke capital, to the very core of the left-wing cathedral, are ultimately doomed because they are seeking to negotiate with a theological enemy. This is relatively obvious, but I know of numerous mid-to-senior-level rock stars who left Heritage at least in part because of the difficulty in fighting for a commander who couldn’t address today’s challenges.
James remains on the Heritage Board of Trustees, which is as much of a face-saving move for Heritage as it is for her. Already there are hit pieces attacking Heritage for firing someone with her credentials, and it is to the board’s credit that they pulled the proverbial Band-Aid off. At a time when Heritage is reportedly hemorrhaging money, whether James will do the honorable thing and forgo her pension remains to be seen, as will her role in voting for her successor. But even if she doesn’t have a hand in selecting her replacement, the board will likely not move much closer to the Republican Party base. The veracity of reports that former President Jim DeMint was ousted for being too Trumpy notwithstanding, it is definitely the case that the board has fewer individuals on it concerned with social conservatism, or populism, or Trump, than there are individuals aligned with neoconservatism. So what will they do?
One thing they might do is select Mike Pence, who recently joined the Heritage Foundation as a distinguished visiting fellow. This sort of perch worked for Elaine Chao, happy to draw a salary and show up once in a Kentucky blue moon, but she didn’t have U.S. presidential aspirations. Serving as foundation president while seeking the White House is altogether different, and it would be malpractice for a board member to vote for an organizational lead who would spend his time poaching donors or using nonprofit funds for campaign purposes. Even if not technically a violation of election law, knowing this to be a likely case would make voting for such a candidate a breach of fiduciary duty. If Pence is named, then, I would take that as his declaration that he does not intend to run in 2024 after all, and that the Board of Trustees has adequate assurances to that effect.
There are other possibilities mentioned in the news media. But among those senior enough, and charismatic enough, the options are slim. Former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows is one option, but he recently joined DeMint’s Conservative Partnership Institute, a great organization with credibility among the base. So it is doubtful the board would want to move in that direction. Another possibility is Ken Cucinnelli. Ken, rightly or wrongly, is best known for joining Senator Mike Lee and throwing his 2016 GOP Convention credential on the ground in a memeworthy display of anti-Trump impotence. But while he did rehabilitate himself somewhat while at the Department of Homeland Security, he isn’t known for being a manager, or for long term political judgment. Brooke Rollins, the former head of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Kushner-empowered erstwhile head of the Trump Domestic Policy Council, is another possibility. But given her positioning in the Kay Cole James soft-on-crime-and-immigration space, this would not endear Heritage to the GOP base. Furthermore, Rollins is apparently already staffing up a small think tank with her health-policy-heavy former DPC staff. While taking care of your own is a very admirable thing to do, bringing on a few-dozen new senior staff into an organization needing to cut overhead was part of the DeMint error, and so is likely not an option; leaving her new organization high and dry would enrage donors and staff alike.
There are other available options, but perhaps the best is for the board to stand up a search committee and let the thing play out. There are so many ideological landmines, given how far the Heritage Board is now from the conservative base, that setting up guideposts ex ante will only limit the field to a sclerotic few Bush-era types. Better to cast a wide net, so that they can look at a binder full of candidates and make an informed decision. The next head of the Heritage Foundation should be selected on merit, not for demographic purposes, should be a manager (or at least should empower a manager and not continue supporting the foundation’s bureaucracy), and should be charismatic, able to deliver a barn-burner of a speech.
The midterm elections are just around the corner (truly!) and 2024 is only over the horizon. The conservative movement now needs pugilistic leadership and creativity, rather than managed decline. So I wish my old employer well; there are so many of us ex-staffers who love the Heritage Foundation and are encouraged by yesterday’s news.
Andrew Kloster is a lawyer in D.C., formerly serving concurrently as associate director in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel and as deputy general counsel at the United States Office of Personnel Management. He has served in various other Trump administration and conservative nonprofit roles, and his weekly newsletter “Right from the Ground Up” covers institutional growth on the right, and is found at https://andrewkloster.
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