Washington's largest locus of opposition remains the Heritage Foundation, headed by Ed Feulner since 1977. Feulner arrived in Washington during the Great Society years and was instrumental in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Before an audience of students at The King's College, New York City, he recalled those years and discussed ways to challenge the even Greater Society that the Obama administration hopes to create. Here is an edited transcript.
Q: You first gained a close-up view of the legislative process by working for congressmen and then directing the Republican Study Committee. Here is a trivia question for you: Who was Hillary Clinton's first boss in Washington? It was me. Can you believe it? She was from Park Ridge, Ill. Her congressman, a good conservative Republican, asked, "Can you take this very bright young Goldwater girl as an intern?"
Q: How closely did you supervise her? Not closely enough, alas. There are stories about a couple of her professors at Wellesley who viewed her as a particular challenge to make her into a liberal, since she had been a Goldwater girl, and they did.
Q: And in the 1970s you started building Heritage. No congressman or senator had time to read full-length books. We needed a think tank that could produce short papers for congressmen, senators, and key staffers that were credible-all the facts upfront, conclusion separated-that were timely. If they came out too early, no one paid attention. If they missed the vote by a day or two, all you did was kill a tree and make some college librarians busier.
Q: Folks at Heritage explained to me that a paper should be short enough for a senator or congressman to read it in a cab between Capitol Hill and National Airport. I also heard about the briefcase test. The paper had to be short enough-four pages-to fit in the briefcase of a congressman or senator when he goes home for the weekend. Hopefully even a Chuck Schumer might have it in his briefcase, or he might read it on the little subway going from the Senate office building over to the Senate floor when he is about to vote.
Q: The Brookings Institution, on the liberal side, was known more for tomes, full-size books. We were trying to reach directly to the policy makers and not go through intermediate institutions or people. The model has been followed. Brookings, the American Enterprise, the Cato Institute, and other think tanks all do short studies.
Q: Conservatives have dominated the think tank world, but colleges and universities remain a vast wasteland. At the highprestige colleges and universities, the Ivys especially, entering students know more about the basics-whether it is the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, or what our whole system and structure is about-than they know when they leave four years later.
Q: They've heard a lot of propaganda. Alumni should look at what is being taught in the classroom. If things are not the way they should be, they should not be giving money there. Instead, they should be looking for institutions like this one where they can give in order to build up the right kind of thinking and a real return to basic principles.
Q: Surveys show Democrats dominating college faculties. Is Heritage the Republican alternative? We believe in certain conservative principles at Heritage, but we are not Republican and we are not in the hip pocket of the Republican Party.
Q: In what ways is Heritage in the pocket of, let's say, the conservative movement, which includes many strains: Historically, hasn't Social Darwinism competed with compassionate conservatism? As unhyphenated conservatives we come out of a Burkian, de Tocqueville tradition, believing in the little platoons of society, in the tradition of subsidiarity, where it is much better to solve social problems at the local level than it is to try to solve them through a bureaucracy. You do raise a very delicate point: at Heritage balancing not only economic freedom, but working with some of our libertarian friends who would probably go further than I would, and with some of our social friends. How do you balance it? Very, very delicately.
Q: Has Barack Obama been good for the Heritage Foundation? Not necessarily good for the country, but good for the Heritage Foundation.
Q: There is nothing like a common opponent to unify groups that would otherwise be attacking each other. Have any of you been down at any of the Tea Party movements? These are not business stooges. Real moms and pops are there because they are worried about the future of the country.
Q: Is Heritage at this point trying to harness that in some way? Are you riding the tiger? We are not about to tell them what they should do because it is genuinely a grassroots movement. It is bottom up, not top down. We want to be on the same song sheet, but we want them to be singing from our hymnal. That hymnal goes back to individual liberties, strong national defense, traditional values.
Q: What will be the effects of Washington's gargantuan deficits? I cannot conceptualize what a trillion is versus a billion. That is when you find out what happens when printing presses run wild. Students, I am about to make Provost Olasky a trillionaire. I have just put a bill worth 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars into his hands. You can put that in the college's endowment.
Q: The good news about King's is that, unlike Harvard, we did not lose any endowment money during Wall Street's decline-because we did not have an endowment. Now we do, in the trillions. A hundred trillion, which is worth two cents. That is what happens when inflation runs out of control and they just crank up the printing presses.
Q: Do you think our current U.S. political problems lie more with the American people or with the politicians? The American people, alas, are not able to articulate questions like they ought to, in terms of focusing in on elected representatives. The American people need a really stark choice, like back to Carter versus Reagan. Obama ran pretty much to the middle.
Q: You mentioned earlier Alexis de Tocqueville, a wonderful observer of American life in the 1830s. If de Tocqueville came and visited us today, what observations might he make? He would marvel. He would be heartened by the physical presence of so many intermediate institutions, whether they are the churches, synagogues, and other places of worship, or the voluntary places that have been established where volunteers come and help underprivileged children. Then he would look around and say, "What is all this stuff coming out of Washington? Why is it there? Do we really need it? Is it in fact, displacing what ought to happen other ways? Why are people trying to manage this from the top down?"
Q: Republicans used to favor balanced budgets to avoid letting unfunded liabilities and the national debt get too large. Then the emphasis changed to restricting the growth of taxes so as to avoid being the tax collectors for the welfare state, but spending has continued to grow. Spending is the key word. The key word is not deficit. If you do not stop the spending now, the cumulative impact is going to get worse and worse. Increased taxes just give the gals and guys in Washington more resources to play with. There used to be an assumption that we had some kind of loosely defined limit out there to what deficit spending could be. The mind boggles in terms of what these numbers are now. The first step has to be to stop the spending.
To hear Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Ed Feulner, click here.