January 31, 2001

January 31, 2001 | Commentary on Political Thought

ED013101a: Think Tanks and Presidents

The president-elect needed help on his transition, and naturally he turned to the Washington think tank whose policy ideas most closely coincided with his own. The organization responded generously, providing offices for a number of his transition-team members, as well as a library and meeting rooms. Transition officials worked closely with about 100 scholars who were examining the major issues of the day for the think tank.

George W. Bush and The Heritage Foundation? No, John F. Kennedy and the Brookings Institution.

Although there is nothing new or unseemly about such close cooperation, the relationship between presidents and think tanks upsets some liberals. Consider New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who recently expressed alarm over President Bush's interest in Heritage and decried the notion of "government by professional ideologues."

Krugman doesn't seem to realize that presidents and think tanks across the political spectrum have been collaborating since the early 20th century. In 1921, for example, Brookings' predecessor, the Institute for Government Research, engineered passage of the Budget and Accounting Act, creating the Bureau of the Budget. The Institute, according to Brookings historian James A. Smith, drafted House and Senate versions of the budget reform bill, organized congressional testimony, and arranged publicity to generate public support.

Decades later, Brookings was still affecting the course of legislation. For example, a 1976 Brookings study recommended that the B-l bomber be dropped from the Pentagon's arsenal. Six months after taking office, President Jimmy Carter announced his decision to scrap plans for producing and deploying the B-1.

But the tight little world of think tanks was transformed in the 1970s with the emergence of conservative research organizations such as The Heritage Foundation, which sought a reduction rather than an expansion of government and aggressively marketed its proposals to policymakers and the mass media.

And so when President Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981, he got off to a remarkably fast start because his administration had as a blueprint "Mandate for Leadership," a massive Heritage study filled with 2,000 recommendations on how to reform the welfare state. Borrowing from Kennedy's game plan 20 years earlier, Reagan's transition coordinator had been in touch with the study's authors months prior to Election Day.

Such relationships are not surprising. In many ways, the think tank has replaced the university as the primary producer of ideas and ways to advance democracy and capitalism around the world. "Governments in search of advice" in the 1980s, wrote The Economist, "looked to think-tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs in Britain and The Heritage Foundation in the United States, rather than to Oxford or Harvard."

Think tanks continue to affect policy, as shown by the prominent role Heritage played in the 1994 "Contract with America," the influence of the Progressive Policy Institute on the Clinton administration, and the prospective role of the Hoover Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, and Heritage in the coming Bush years.

Of course, this doesn't sit well with Krugman, who says that conservative ideas have become "trite." But that's like saying that the ideas of limited government, individual freedom and responsibility, a free competitive market, and a robust national defense have become trite. These ideas cut across party lines and bridge ideological divides.

Which is why Heritage, sometimes and erroneously called a "Republican" think tank, has worked with leading Democrats such as Joseph Lieberman on defense spending, Bill Bradley on economic subsidies for the former Soviet Union, Daniel P. Moynihan on payroll tax cuts, and even Edward Kennedy on airline deregulation.

These ideas are not ideological or partisan but American. They are neither trite nor worn out. The question isn't whether presidents and other political leaders should consult ideologically friendly think tanks, but - given the intellectually arid plains found at most major universities - why they shouldn't.

Lee Edwards, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America."

About the Author

Lee Edwards, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics

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