The Atlantic

The Dilemma of the D.C. Think Tank

Conservative think tanks are weighing the relative risks and rewards of independence and influence—an old dilemma made newly relevant by President Trump.
Source: Joshua Roberts / Reuters

As Kay Coles James prepares to begin her tenure as head of the Heritage Foundation, she faces an immediate opportunity—and challenge. She inherits a storied American institution, which currently holds the title of—to quote the former and interim Heritage president Ed Feulner—“Donald Trump’s favorite think tank.” This privileged status brings with it significant advantages in terms of PR and access, but it also carries danger should the administration and the think tank diverge from one another. This is the delicate task that lies ahead of James—striking a balance between influence and independence in the work that Heritage will do.

Steering too far in the direction of independence risks provoking presidential disapproval. In fact, it was the displeasure of one White House aide with the think tanks of the time that led to creation of the Heritage Foundation in the first place. In 1970, a small delegation of conservatives met with the Nixon White House staffer Lyn Nofziger to discuss how to get research support for conservative ideas in Congress. When one of the participants mentioned the American Enterprise Institute, Nofziger had a visceral reaction. Paul Weyrich, who was at the meeting, Nofziger said: “‘AEI? AEI—I'll tell you about AEI.’ And he got up, walked over to a bookcase, took a study off the shelf and literally blew the dust—I mean, you saw this cloud of dust. And he said, ‘That's what they're good for. They're good for libraries.’” The beer

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