Heritage Action, the conservative group that orchestrated the defund-Obamacare campaign, emerged from the recent shutdown with few legislative victories. But it didn’t walk away empty-handed; it won influence, especially among activists, who view the group as the operational muscle behind Senator Ted Cruz.
How Heritage Action wields its newfound authority (and its Cruz ties) in the coming months will say much about its place in the conservative firmament — and its ability to shape the GOP’s strategy.
To get a better sense of its agenda, National Review Online sat down with Mike Needham, Heritage Action’s 31-year-old CEO, at a Capitol Hill coffee shop. He remains disappointed about the way his defund strategy fizzled, but he’s convinced he can win the brewing conservative debate over best practices during divided government.
When I mention how some Republicans think Cruz and his group were damaged by the showdown, Needham tells me, “They haven’t been more than five miles outside D.C. if they think that.”
At the top of Needham’s to-do list: encouraging House Republicans to take the lead on both tactics and policy, regardless of resistance from their Senate counterparts. “Speaker John Boehner and Eric Cantor fought during the shutdown,” Needham says. “They fought to keep the message on Obamacare. But they were kneecapped constantly by the Republicans in the Senate.”
Needham acknowledges that there are tensions between Boehner, Cantor, and Heritage Action. But he doesn’t think his group should be considered an overt threat to the House leadership. “We’ve never gotten involved with leadership races,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is create an environment where the way to get 218 votes is to do the conservative thing, irrespective of the personalities.”
On Obamacare, Needham believes that the only way Republicans can win any concessions from Democrats is to present a united front, with conservative House members and their Senate allies shaping the strategy. It’s critical that Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell “listen” to these lawmakers, Needham explains, and not assume conservatives will eventually come along.
He’d also like to see fewer deep-background Republican sneers from critics of Cruz and Heritage Action. “Compare the unity of Senate Democrats with Senate Republicans and you can see why Republicans struggle,” Needham says. “It’s unhelpful when Senate Republicans are leaking the details of conference meetings, like they did during the shutdown. Beyond that, you had Richard Burr saying it was a dumb idea, you had Tom Coburn critical of the strategy, and Susan Collins and John McCain trying to negotiate a deal.”
But those naysaying senators, ultimately, didn’t decide the strategy, Needham says, and he credits Heritage Action’s effort to “arm constituents with information” as the factor that forced Boehner and Cantor to rally with the Tea Party and endure a shutdown. As future battles near, he thinks events will follow a similar course.
Needham, a graduate of Stanford’s business school, has a passion for conservatism but takes a clinical view of policymaking. His prediction: The more voters remain plugged in about the problems of Obamacare, the more they’ll demand Republican leaders have a standoff with the administration over the law. Heritage Action, he says, is simply monitoring and stoking that sentiment, and reminding GOP leaders to pay attention.
As Needham sees it, Heritage Action’s informational support for Cruz — from its scorecards and its blog posts to its television-ad campaign — has created a new “paradigm.” These days, he adds, because Heritage Action is doing the “blocking and tackling” on floor procedure, conservatives aren’t relegated to outside protests but can direct the leadership on cloture votes.
The evolution for Heritage Action, which was founded in 2010 and functions as the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, has been slow and steady. What started as another pressure group among hundreds has now become, in essence, the conservative movement’s daily whip team, with Needham often competing directly with Boehner’s whips to kill bills, amend legislation, and woo the right flank.
The idea of being a shadow whip team, frequently working against the Republican party, isn’t a characterization Needham rejects. “This isn’t about two- or four-year election cycles,” he says. “It’s about day-in, day-out policy accountability on what’s truly going on in this town. I know that has created a lot of animosity toward those of us who are going over the heads of members of Congress with an ideological angle and talking directly with constituents, but that’s part of life.”
For Needham, it’s not just about a strategy; it’s about an attitude. He grew up as a fast-talking conservative on New York City’s Upper East Side, where he cheered on then-mayor Rudy Giuliani for taking on the city’s entrenched interests and demanding change — and he’d like to see Republican leaders brawl more, instead of complaining.
“Politicians thrive on setting expectations as low as possible so that they can’t help but trip on them,” Needham says. “What people actually want are politicians who try to inspire, try to achieve something, and your voters are smart enough to know that at a time of divided government, we might not get everything that we want.”
Since it’s only late October, Needham is officially undecided about how he’ll handle the 2014 deadlines for the debt ceiling and government funding. “I think that there’s a lot that’s going to happen between now and then,” he says. “Coming out of the holidays, we’ll have to see whether the American people have the appetite for a fight.”
Needham, though, certainly will.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.