WASHINGTON—Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts spoke to Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen and WMAL host Vince Coglianese about his goals as Heritage’s new leader, the major policy battles facing Americans, and how he plans to engage with the conservative movement.
“I happen to think we have a finite amount of time to get this country back on track, and I happen to think Heritage does play and will play a disproportionate role in getting it back on track,” Roberts said during the hour-long interview with Olsen, who also serves as a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center.
What attracted you to The Heritage Foundation?
“I owe my understanding of conservatism to The Heritage Foundation. Solely and exclusively. I was an eighth grader down the road at Washington Irving Middle School and got into what was a fairly routine debate with my civics teacher, who is left of center. Nice guy, great teacher. And the short version of a story I’ve told a couple of times already is that I was not substantiating my opinion well. … Rather than try to change my opinion, which I imagine if he had his druthers he would have been able to do, he said, ‘You need to go discover The Heritage Foundation.’”
What makes Heritage unique from all of the other institutions on the right?
“Heritage has adapted with the times. It has become almost as much a communications vehicle for understanding conservative policy, communicating conservative policy, as it is a think tank in the traditional sense of that term. So, I think, for that reason primarily, it’s well positioned. The second is that Heritage is what I like to call a full-service operation. The Heritage enterprise between The Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action covers every aspect of American politics and policy. You put all those ingredients together, there is not another institution in Washington, other parts of the country, that has the influence that it does.”
How much time do we have to get the country back on track?
“The current environment is toxic. It is an environment that dissuades a plurality, if not a majority, of Americans from wanting to get involved—including even just voting on their own volition. And I think the solution to that is for institutions like Heritage—and hopefully there would be some on the left, and some in the center—to decide that being snarky on Twitter is far less important than cultivating an American’s pride in national conversations about policy. … Heritage is uniquely positioned across the entire spectrum, especially on the right, to show the manner in which we can have those conversations. … I think we have 10 years, 15 years, to right the ship of this republic, which is only a little bit shorter than we usually have. Because as a historian of the United States, I would say we’re always just a generation away.”
Fifteen years from now, the country’s back on track. You’ve won. What’s different?
“The point is to devolve power from the nation’s capital back to the states and the local communities. That’s probably a half century-long project, just to be realistic as a historian. But 15 years from now in 2036, if we’re sitting in this room and reminiscing on what’s happened, we ought to be able to feel that we’ve made a lot of progress toward that objective. … I like to measure successes from the standpoint of individual people. And I think that however well-intentioned some aspects of the so-called war on poverty may have been, we’ve created nearly three generations of Americans who are dependent on government. And I don’t even mean that from the standpoint of how expensive that is financially—it’s most expensive in undermining people’s human dignity. And that for me, however long, hopefully a long time, that I will be president of the Heritage Foundation, is what’s going to motivate our work every day.”
What should Heritage’s mission be in the current environment?
“The first is, and this is a long-standing value proposition of Heritage, the idea propagation among elites, among people in power: members of Congress, presidential administrations. That has to continue. … But the second thing, and this is the part that really excites me because Heritage has already been doing this—Heritage Action already does this—but this is who I am, this is the background that I have, so I’m going to gravitate to this, is the propagation of ideas among non-elites. If Heritage achieves something new, it will be disseminating ideas among those folks as much as it disseminates ideas among the elites. And when both those in power and those grassroots who are clamoring for those in power to do something are talking the same language, then we’ve won.”
On Thursday, Roberts joined Coglianese, host of "The Vince Coglianese Show" on WMAL and editorial director of The Daily Caller. Coglianese is a former Heritage Foundation intern and recipient of Heritage’s Robin and Jocelyn Martin Distinguished Intern Alumni Award in 2020.
In their conversation, Roberts sounded a clear warning about the threat of the Chinese Communist Party and how we must change our approach to the CCP:
“The problem is the Chinese Communist Party. … We can’t just believe that American institutions, whether they be some aspect of our government or the free market, are going to solve all of the woes of the world. In fact, when we distort the free market, by having American interests subsidize the Chinese Communist Party—who themselves are distorting the market—what we’re not looking at is the free market, we’re looking at something that looks like a socialist, managed economy, and it’s being imposed back on us. In other words, we’re seeing the disadvantages of our mistakes twice.”
Since joining Heritage as president on Dec. 1, Roberts has joined a number of national broadcast shows, published a longform essay on the future of conservatism, and been profiled by the Washington Examiner.