IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Taking the 'think' out of 'think tank'

Getty Images

South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint left the U.S. Senate this month to become the new president of the Heritage Foundation, once the nation's leading conservative think tank, where he intends to "launch a conservative revival." And what might that entail? DeMint has an op-ed in the Washington Post today that appears intended to present a vision for the future.

For the record, I'd love to see a revival of conservative intellectualism. For that matter, I strongly believe the political world would benefit greatly if the right's think tanks returned to focusing on policy and problem solving, with a renewed interest in intellectual vigor and substance.

And yet, the new head of the Heritage Foundation still seems woefully unprepared for the task ahead. DeMint Post piece argues that President Obama "took away the work requirements" in welfare law -- good lord, do we really have to correct this lieagain? -- before laying out a plan for Heritage's future.

The election taught conservatives that we can no longer entrust political parties to carry our message.

We must take our case to the people ourselves, and we must start where all good marketing starts: with research. Conservative policies have proved their worth time and time again. If we're not communicating in a way that makes that clear, we are doing a disservice to our fellow citizens. We need to test the market and our message to communicate more effectively.

That's why Heritage will start this year to help the conservative movement understand how Americans from all walks of life perceive public policy issues and how to communicate conservative ideas and solutions.

DeMint and I seem to understand the meaning of "research" quite differently.

When I think of an organization, ostensibly focused on public policy, conducting "research," I think of experts, scholars, and all-around wonks looking at a challenge from different angles, and relying on rigorous academic study to better understand the nature of a problem and how to solve it.

DeMint believes "research" is about, in his words, "good marketing." The Heritage Foundation doesn't intend to focus on policy; it intends to focus on "messaging" and "communicating."

The goal isn't to publish scholarship, it's to provide talking points that have been carefully tested for their persuasive efficacy. DeMint doesn't intend to lead a think tank; he intends to use his think tank to become a message strategist for like-minded politicians.

And while this is a rather pathetic goal for a once-serious research organization, also note the extent to which DeMint buys into the notion that Republicans are in great shape -- they just aren't using the right words. There's a lot of this going around, but it's misguided.