Mitt v. Newt: Tonight's Debate Could Be the Heritage Foundation's Nightmare

Gingrich: There is a lot of big government behind Romneycare, not as much as Obamacare, but a heck of a lot more than your campaign is admitting.

Romney: Actually, Newt, we got the idea of an individual mandate from you.

Gingrich: That’s not true. You got it from the Heritage Foundation.

Romney: Yeah. We got it from you and the Heritage Foundation and from you.

Gingrich: What you just said is not true. You did not get that from me. You got it from the Heritage Foundation.

That exchange, from the October 18th GOP presidential primary debate, likely caused a good number of clenched sphincters within the drop-ceilings of power at The Heritage Foundation. Until then, the think tank had only fought the socialist lefties at the Obama administration over Heritage’s health-care-mandate dirty hands. But now, the calls were coming from inside the house. With tonight’s CNN debate co-sponsored by The Heritage Foundation, another quibble like this between Newt and Mitt could bring further embarrassment to the mighty institution—and unravel millions of dollars in recent branding efforts.

Despite promoting the October 18th debate two times that day, Heritage’s main Twitter feed ignored the reference to its involvement in crafting the individual health care mandate that was just as central to “Obamacare” as the opposition to it. But Rory Cooper, Heritage Foundation’s Communications Director, leaped to action. Just minutes after the exchange, Cooper himself tweeted “Heritage Files Brief w/ Supreme Ct Opposing Individual Mandate,” linking to a May 2011 announcement. The five month-old website posting announced the organization’s amicus brief filed with the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. (After the debate, Cooper added, dryly, “A lot of great ideas discussed tonight that *were not* appropriately credited to Heritage!”)

That May “friend-of-the-court brief” was meant to counter the Obama administration’s own citation of the Heritage Foundation’s support of the mandate. Heritage’s brief in opposition to its own former opinions is a clinic in spin. It reads: “Heritage policy experts have been involved in the debate over mandates for many years, but its own research contributed to the growing consensus among market-based economists and health policy experts that such a mandate is not necessary….” In other words, Heritage’s promotion of the mandate was just a trail-blazing effort to means-test it in order to discredit it. (Indeed, the 11th Circuit may have been think-tanked, voting a few months later that the mandate was unconstitutional.)

That Heritage defense went on to call Obamacare “an abomination,” adding, “we changed our position on individual mandates long before President Obama ever spoke of one.”

“Long before” depends upon what the length of the word “long” is.

In Heritage’s case, this seems to be about two years. The Heritage Foundation’s own website still carries a January 2006 defense of Romney’s plan and the mandate by a Heritage Foundation Center for Health Policy Studies fellow. He begins, “In reality, those who want to create a consumer-based health system and deregulate health insurance should view Romney’s plan as one of the most promising strategies out there. I know, because I’ve been part of the Heritage Foundation team advising the governor and his staff on the design…”

In another still-available post from 2006, a Heritage senior policy analyst argues, “While many oppose a mandate to buy insurance—even basic catastrophic insurance to protect the community from individuals not paying their bills—on philosophical grounds, they should still have a firm factual understanding of the Massachusetts mandate, which may be less problematic than they realize.”

In yet another: “As for the employer fee mandate… [its] real-world impact will be negligible… Rather than focus on the bill’s politically galvanizing ‘mandates,’ policymakers and pundits should step back and look at the big picture of this landmark reform.”

The concept of a mandate that all Americans buy health insurances comes from an October 2, 1989 Heritage Foundation paper titled “Assuring Affordable Health Care for All Americans” (PDF). In it, author Stuart M. Butler argues “neither the federal government nor any state requires all households to protect themselves from the potentially catastrophic costs of a serious accident or illness. Under the Heritage plan, there would be such a requirement.” He writes: “Society does feel a moral obligation to insure that its citizens do not suffer from the unavailability of health care. But on the other hand, each household has the obligation, to the extent it is able, to avoid placing demands on society by protecting itself….” (Mind you, according to today’s 11th Circuit, Heritage’s grand plan was likely unconstitutional.)

That plan was followed by the The Heritage Consumer Choice Health Plan (PDF) released in March of 1992. (To this day, Heritage still lists The Heritage Consumer Choice Health Plan on its 35th Anniversary History of Achievements list.)

Step two of this 1992 plan required “all households to purchase at least a basic package of insurance, unless they are covered by Medicaid, Medicare, or other government health programs…. The private insurance market would be reformed to make a standard basic package available to all at an acceptable price [and] employers would be required to make a payroll deduction each pay period, at the direction of the employee, and send the amount to the plan of the employee’s choice.”

Looking at the individual mandate portion of Obamacare, it’s easy to see how its catalyst would be pro-privatization research. While the reforms are popularly derided today as socialist, even communist, the whole shebang is in fact a gravy train for private insurance. It pours cement into a national privatized healthcare foundation that a single-payer system could probably never chip away. No wonder that powerful politicians like Gingrich and Orrin Hatch—who today both say Obamacare must be scrapped—were in love with the mandate at the time.

Being a bunch of smart people, Heritage saw this all coming. And its initial strategy, as it is for every scandalized power, was deny, deny, deny.

In April 2010, the former Reagan administration official and current director of Heritage’s Center for Health Policy Studies, Robert Moffit, took to the op-ed page of The Washington Post to declare that “Obama’s health reform isn’t modeled after Heritage Foundation ideas.” He was “incensed” at the very suggestion. Moffit, reminding everyone that he would be there all week, wrote: “The Obama health-care law ‘builds’ on the Heritage health reform model only in the sense that, say, a double-quarter-pounder with cheese ‘builds’ on the idea of a garden salad. Both have lettuce and tomato and may be called food, but the similarities end there.”

Jump ahead 10 months: senior Heritage fellow Brian Darling is on Fox News saying all this attention to the details of Romneycare was just a ploy by Obama to cause a distracting “food fight within the Republican primary.”

Then this September, Heritage President of Communications Mike Gonzalez demanded, “[White House press secretary] Mr. Carney, Stop Misrepresenting Heritage’s Position.” Gonzalez again called Obamacare “an abomination” and referenced Heritage’s May amicus brief.

That 31-page brief reads “Although Heritage never supported a PPACA-style mandate, and has since changed its policy position to oppose all mandates, Heritage health care experts previously (albeit mistakenly) accepted the view that a limited insurance mandate might be necessary to address these market and government-created effects.” So, maybe Moffit mistakenly meant to write that Obamacare “‘builds’ on the Heritage health reform model only in the sense that, say, a double-quarter-pounder with cheese ‘builds’ on the idea of a double-quarter-pounder.”

It was all an embarrassing headache for Heritage, albeit one the tank thinkers saw coming. What they did not see coming was “Newt Gingirch, front-runner.”

Now the PR nightmare has mutated. Striking down comments from Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney requires a lot more dexterity than dealing with the pinko libtards in the White House, nincompoops that Heritage’s followers already assume lie to their own grandmothers. Romney, meanwhile, was (is?) a flip-flopping liberal political half-breed who had as much to lose from bringing up the Heritage Foundation’s mandate involvement as Heritage did. But Newt? He may be a cheating scumbag RINO, but he is also a trusted historian of the conservative movement. Gingrich throwing Heritage under the bus is not only bad for the think tank’s reputation, it speaks to a battle for branding of the source for modern conservative ideas.

The danger going forward for the Heritage Foundation is that a protracted battle between “surging” Newt and “inevitable” Mitt over Obamcare risks dragging the think tank into the mandate muck. Beyond the October debate comments, it’s already happening. On a new Newt 2012 website called “Stopping the Bleeding” “Answering the Attacks,” one item on the “menu” is “Health Insurance Mandate.” The item explains, “In the 1990s, Newt and many other conservatives, such as the Heritage Foundation, proposed a mandate to purchase health insurance….”

More than embarrassing, such continued outings could undo the millions and millions of dollars Heritage has been spending over the last few years to brand itself with the American people. Earlier this year, Politico reported that The Heritage Foundation was paying “about $2 million to sponsor Limbaugh’s show and about $1.3 million to do the same with Hannity’s.”

Anyone who listens to Limbaugh knows that these sponsorships are more like product placements than the conventional ad about, say, liquidating all your gold or protecting your last $14 with LifeLock. Limbaugh regularly cites Heritage studies, uses the organization to defend and legitimize his positions and slings its reports in discussion items. (Such as its groundbreaking exposé on how “92 percent of poor households have a microwave.” The kind of report groomed for win-the-day media attention.)

And this tarnished reputation really can hurt Heritage’s bottom line. While it’s fashionable to think of a group like The Heritage Foundation as the repository of the money the one-percent earmarks for “evil schemes,” in reality, Heritage relies greatly on small donations from everyday conservatives. Heritage told Politico that it estimates its Limbaugh and Hannity tie-ins gained it 40,000 new members, each paying at least $25. (That’s $1 million by the way.) Heritage claims to have 710,000 members, up from the 684,000 it claimed in 2010.

Indeed, one thing Heritage bought from Limbaugh was damage control regarding its involvement in the creation of the individual mandate. Limbaugh railed, “The Heritage Foundation, to this day, says they are being impugned and misrepresented in terms of their advocacy for such a thing.” (It’s also likely the Heritage connection that saw Limbaugh vigorously defending fellow talk radio host Herman Cain after his Libya pooch-screw. Cain is a longtime Heritage speaker, claiming he gets his ideas from the Bible and “a lot of the papers that are published by The Heritage Foundation.”)

Heritage Foundation may be a granddaddy of think tankery (since 1973), but it is facing new competition from Tea Party groups hungry for its members. Dick Armey’s army at FreedomWorks has recently surged in importance. A direct political action committee, Freedomworks acts at a level of aggressive activism more in favor with today’s further-right conservatives—they’d like to drop the “think” from “think tank.” FreedomWorks just scored a huge victory as its Tea Party Debt Commission “hearing” inside the walls of Congress was martyred when it was booted from the building.

The dramatic shutdown was a dream outcome for FreedomWorks PR. Heritage’s inside-the-beltway bow-tied pointyheads, by contrast, come across like wusses. (FreedomWorks is heavily mortgaged with its own spokestalker, Glenn Beck.) FreedomWorks President and CEO Matt Kibbe’s profile has increased greatly recently, appearing on numerous news shows to vocalize the group’s smaller-government, larger-sideburns message. As a Tea Party organization that spearheaded the 2009 anti-Obamacare “Occupy Town Halls” movement, FreedomWorks also has no pesky policy creation history to de-legitimize its current positions.

While it may seem like The Heritage Foundation’s unwillingness to speak ill of Romney stems from an allegiance to Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment (Thou shalt not speak ill of other Republicans), it’s actually due to the organization’s 501(c)(3) status, disallowing direct support or opposition of a declared candidate. So instead, Heritage is left having to humor Mitt and Newt as leading candidates, like a guy marrying a fine upstanding Christian women who, at the reception, runs into an ex- with whom he used to do lines of coke and have filthy, filthy sex.

But as a registered PAC, FreedomWorks has no such limitations and can openly support and fund (or oppose) any candidate it wishes. This is a kind of direct action Heritage lacks. So into 2012, Heritage potentially faces a struggle for its reputation from within the very group that its power of ideas crafted for decades. Today’s everyday conservatives, especially Tea Party-oriented ones, see the the end of the think tank’s invisible hand of intellectual influence. Many no longer want an egghead to tell them what to say; now they want to be told what to do.

Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer at gmail dot com. He is also on Twitter. His book How to be: NORTH DAKOTA. A Guide to the Plains is available now.