When a report by the Heritage Foundation asserted that immigration reform would cost the nation $6.3 trillion over the next 50 years, even many Republicans cringed. Based on dubious assumptions and methodology, the report from the conservative think tank claimed that allowing 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States a pathway to legal status would create an immense burden for public assistance programs. And when it emerged that the study’s coauthor, Jason Richwine, had received a degree from Harvard in 2009 with a dissertation arguing that Latino immigrants were less intelligent than other groups, it cast the assumptions underpinning the Heritage study in a disturbing new light.
Richwine has now resigned, but the fiasco continues to raise some understandable questions about why Harvard granted him a degree, even though it appears that all the usual academic safeguards were in place. It also raises a more fundamental question for conservatives who care about the right’s ability to generate ideas and policies: Why did an organization that was once considered a center of the conservative intellectual universe issue a report that even Haley Barbour, the former Republican National Committee chairman and Mississippi governor, called “a political document . . . not a very serious analysis”?
The Heritage report, which seems aimed more at inflaming talk-radio audiences than furthering an honest debate, is a sad milestone in the organization’s decline — the bookend of the group’s long downward slide into partisanship. It’s part of a disturbing trend not just for conservatives, but for the country that would benefit from the serious work the foundation once produced.
Heritage was founded in 1973 to advance free-market ideas that many conservatives felt were marginalized in left-leaning universities. Those scholars saw, sometimes correctly, a liberal academic establishment constrained by groupthink and political correctness. Heritage’s scholars put forward serious policy proposals, some of which ultimately gained traction across the ideological spectrum.
The foundation’s greatest success, though, also turned out to mark the beginning of its demise. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney drew on the individual mandate developed by Heritage scholars Stuart Butler and Edmund Haislmaier for the Massachusetts universal health care law. A Heritage scholar spoke at Faneuil Hall in favor of the law when Romney signed the bill in 2006. The law turned out to be a success — and became the basis for Obamacare.
Heritage could have claimed credit for inspiring the national law. After all, it embodied many of the free-market ideas that the foundation had championed, preserving a role for private insurance companies. Instead, in a heated partisan climate, Heritage simply disowned its own work. Heritage’s reputation as an independent ideas factory, rather than a wing of the GOP, took a blow from which it has never recovered. The slide continued in the Obama years, as Tea Party purists subjected Republicans to one litmus test after the next, requiring them to oppose anything Obama favored. By the time GOP firebrand Jim DeMint was named to lead Heritage, the reputation it built up over the years was in tatters.
The foundation now seems to suffer from blinders as limiting as the ones that conservatives once perceived in liberal faculty lounges. The demands of partisanship in the age of Obama seem to have reduced Heritage, and some other wings of the conservative movement, to little more than sloganeers. Conservatives face a host of challenges as they seek to regain political power, from reaching out to women to making peace with minorities. But they also need to restore a sense that they’re participating in a serious contest of ideas — and not just beating the drums of talk-radio resentment.