The Heritage Foundation celebrates its 50th anniversary Thursday, and Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts is reflecting on the leading conservative think tank’s success over the past five decades.
“There are a lot of ways I would put that, but I think most succinctly it would be [that] Heritage has always been willing without fail to state the truth, even in those times when stating the truth comes with some risks,” Roberts says on today’s episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast.”
“In other words, … often stating the truth about fiscal restraint or the lack thereof, stating the truth about America’s social and cultural weakness, stating the truth about violating federalism,” he says.
Roberts became president of The Heritage Foundation in October 2021 after serving for five years as president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, Texas. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)
Roberts joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss Heritage’s success since its founding in 1973, what he hopes to see the think tank accomplish over the next five decades, and how he, as Heritage president, is working to build the think tank’s role in the conservative movement as America’s outpost in Washington.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Samantha Aschieris: Today is the 50th anniversary of The Heritage Foundation, and joining us to celebrate is Heritage Foundation President Dr. Kevin Roberts. Dr. Roberts, thank you so much for being with us.
Kevin Roberts: It’s my pleasure.
Aschieris: As I mentioned, today is the 50th anniversary of The Heritage Foundation. Really just an incredible honor. I think it speaks to the work that we’ve been doing both in the past and the present. First and foremost, what do you think has contributed to the success of The Heritage Foundation over the last 50 years?
Roberts: There are a lot of ways I put that, but I think most succinctly it would be Heritage has always been willing without fail to state the truth even in those times when stating the truth comes with some risks. In other words, sometimes maybe even often stating the truth about fiscal restraint or the lack thereof, stating the truth about America’s social and cultural weakness, stating the truth about violating federalism.
We know that those are right. Our supporters know that we’re right. Our friends in Congress do. But it isn’t always popular in Washington, D.C., to do that. And yet, today, as much as we did in the first days of Heritage, we do that. For us internally, as you know, that’s one of our metrics of success. We don’t do that, to sum up here, to make people angry. We do it because it’s the right thing to do. We know that that’s a palpable obligation we feel when we walk into our office.
Aschieris: Just to look ahead to the next 50 years, what do you hope to see The Heritage Foundation accomplish?
Roberts: Continuing to be cheerful warriors. That’s why we’re able to get away with stating the truth even when it hurts, is that almost always we have smiles on our faces about it. What we’re looking to do as we think about the next 50 years is calling a spade a spade. We’re very sober about the challenges America faces. We’re not being silly when we say that.
Secondly, what we’re also zealously focused on is the set of solutions that fix those problems. We’re hopeful that that aspirational vision of what conservative governance looks like—not just a smaller government, but a government that is involved in only those parts of life so that the rest of those aspects of life we’re able to be in charge of, we’re able to focused on self-governance. That would be the great success for The Heritage Foundation.
Sometimes we will define that in terms of school choice bills being passed, smaller federal budgets, foreign policy that makes sense. Heck, how about a presidential administration that doesn’t allow the Chinese Communist Party to fly balloons over the territory? Those are all important things for Heritage to be involved in, but ultimately it comes down to, 50 years from today, whoever’s sitting in my chair—maybe you’ll be sitting in this chair, let’s hope—they would be able to look back and say, “Heritage helped to restore self-governance to the greatest republic in the history of the world.”
Aschieris: I want to talk a little bit more about something that I hear you often talk about, and that’s always being on offense. What does that mean for not only The Heritage Foundation, but also the conservative movement more broadly?
Roberts: It’s kind of a law of physics, coming from this historian, and that is inert matter gets acted on. The conservative movement has been too inert, or has been inert for too long. We see that all the time.
When we think about other metaphors like “the swamp” or “the establishment,” what that means is what they refer to as this “sclerosis,” just this utter growth in inert matter in the most important influential seat of government in the world and in the history of the world. What Heritage wants to do and tries to do every day is break that open, and ultimately that’s important because that stands in the way, all of that inertia of self-governance.
We can look at a series of policies we’ve articulated, to the point of your question, ranging from education to foreign policy to fiscal restraint. Getting each of those done, having progress in each of those areas will allow us to restore self-governance in the country.
Aschieris: Just in the last few weeks, just about a week and a half, the U.S. has shot down four objects, starting with the Chinese spy balloon back on Feb. 4. What does this say about the state of our nation and its strength on the global stage?
Roberts: The state of the nation is weak. In fact, the state of the nation is weaker than it’s ever been. I find it unconscionable.
Frankly, I find it a betrayal that the president of the United States on one afternoon would be sitting in a press conference in a room in the White House, asked by a member of the press corps, who was not a conservative, “Mr. President, tell us about this balloon flying over,” then, “Montana?” All we got, I don’t mean to be disrespectful to him or to the office, was a blank look.
That is not innocent. That is a betrayal of the oath of office that he took. That should have been shot down well before it even arrived on the shores of the Pacific Northwest.
The fact that there have been three more balloons, the Biden administration likes to call them “objects,” but we think they’re balloons, tells us in the greatest likelihood that this is coordinated by the Chinese Communist Party.
Each of them has been flying at a different altitude. Each of them has been flying at a different speed. And while we’re awaiting final word from the Department of Defense, we also believe that the Department of Defense knows what they are and there is an utter lack of transparency.
So, not only do we have a weak response by the president, frankly, a weak response from the Pentagon, we also have an utter lack of transparency that, in the depths of the Vietnam conflict in the 1960s and 70s, the media referred as a “credibility gap.” They were willing to call it a credibility gap then because there was a Republican administration. It’d be nice to see the media actually be as critical as they should be in this case. In the absence of that, Heritage will be.
Aschieris: Let’s talk a little bit more about the role of Heritage. I know last year we unveiled the seven policy priorities. Can you speak to these seven policy priorities, the vision that you have for Heritage, and the different campaigns that are part of the policy priorities?
Roberts: The reason for the policy priorities is not just to organize our work internally, but to send a message to policymakers in D.C., policymakers across the states what Heritage thinks is important.
It’s sort of our report card for restoring the self-governance that we’ve been discussing. Whether it is ensuring that every dollar allotted to government-funded schools goes to the school of every parent’s choice; whether it is not just confronting the Chinese Communist Party, but defeating them, eliminating them from the planet; whether it is restoring the rule of law in our cities, at the southern border; fiscal restraint; pushing away the empty promises of big government socialism; among others, if we just have incremental progress on these seven priorities in the next year or two at the federal level, at the state level, at the local level, then what we’re going to see in this country is that our quality of life has improved.
The main reason it will have is because government is doing its constitutional obligations well and it’s not involved in those things that are not its constitutional obligations.
The big example there, and people who follow us closely know that I am fond of saying this, my top three priorities are education, education, education. If we just get education right, then I think a lot of these other issues sort of take care of themselves.
Heritage has a plan working with our friends at our 501(c)(4), Heritage Action, and a lot of coalition partners across the country in every state to see progress in each of these areas.
Aschieris: Another project that The Heritage Foundation is a part of is Project 2025. Can you talk more about this and some its goals?
Roberts: On any given day, Sam, I can get so excited about any of our discrete issues, but every single day, every time I talk about Project 2025, I get very excited for this reason. If we look at a particular moment in time, noon, Jan. 20, 2025, the next president of the United States, whoever he or she will be, will take the oath of office. I’m convinced that person is going to be conservative.
We don’t have a dog in that fight. We’re friends with all of the conservative aspirants. We would love it if Joe Biden somehow would wake up one day conservative. It seems to be unlikely at this point. The point is, he or she will take the oath of office and I know in my heart that he or she will be very grateful to Heritage for the following reason.
Over the last several months we’ve organized 50 other conservative organizations, 400 policy experts from across the movement to produce two years earlier than we would usually do a set of policies for that president to enact.
Beyond that, we’ve worked with the best software and trustworthy software company in the world to develop a conservative LinkedIn, if you will, where thousands of people who want to serve the next administration have already begun submitting their resumes. They will be vetted. They will be trained through 45 training videos and courses that Heritage and our coalition partners are doing.
Then finally, this is the really important part, the conservative movement, when it’s been at its best, like Heritage was in our early days in 1980, did all of this work in a span of three months during the official transition project for the president-elect. We’re starting years in advance because before that president takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2025, we want that plan already to be in motion.
As soon as they get to the White House, as soon as they get there, we’re not talking about the first 100 days, we’re talking about the 100 minutes, implementing executive orders and administrative rules that begin to take back this republic.
The way that looks to some up here is that we finally drive a dagger in the heart of the administrative state. Anything short of that in the 2020s, the conservative movement is just playing around the edges.
Aschieris: I want to talk a little bit about your role as the president of The Heritage Foundation. As we’ve been talking about, Heritage has played such a significant role in the conservative movement both in the past and in present day. As the president, how are you working to continue building on that role and ensuring that Heritage fulfills its role as America’s outpost in Washington?
Roberts: The great thing about being the president of The Heritage Foundation, which is such a privilege, is that every day is different. Some parts of each day—and this is really important for the seven of us who’ve been president of Heritage, we are considered sort of academic or intellectual leaders of the movement. We are, after all, a think tank.
We do a lot more than just your regular think tank. We actually take a lot of action. But that action is effective because we spend so much time with our colleagues here at Heritage, with colleagues, perhaps even some intellectual adversaries across the country, in order to get to the right policy solutions. There’s that element.
The other element of it is traveling the country, not just speaking to groups, but as I like to do, listening to other people. Heritage is supported by several hundred thousand everyday Americans each year. That’s why we’re able to be headquartered here, not just behind enemy lines in the Imperial City, but a block away from the Capitol, and remain sane. That part of my job is really important.
The part of my job that I like best, even though I love those and I love working with the elected officials and giving them advice, is all of the young people who are involved in our movement.
The conservative movement has gotten to the point where we hear a lot about broadening the audience. We hear a lot about making sure that there is a future for the movement. I’ve got the privilege of seeing that every day. Every day that I’m in the office. This podcast is an example of that. You know this, the plurality of our colleagues here at Heritage are 35 and younger. For those of us who are older than 35, it’s very encouraging.
I also know that walking around Capitol Hill, as I do every day when I’m in town, traveling the country, this movement is in really good shape.
We just have to come full circle in our conversation. We just have to make sure we’re telling the truth in an unvarnished way, because we live in a time, for the first time in American history, when a minority of Americans trust institutions. It’s imperative that if in fact we’re going to restore self-governance, if we’re going to have success in all of these policy areas, that we’re able to rebuild that trust. That starts with Americans who are younger than me.
Aschieris: I wanted to talk about some of the challenges that the conservative movement and maybe Heritage are facing to combat some of the threats maybe from the media or the criticism that we might face. What is your response to that? Can you talk more broadly about the efforts to save the republic?
Roberts: We receive a lot of criticism at Heritage. I was going to say, I don’t mean this in a feisty way, but I kind of do. As you know, I’m hyper-competitive. I think a lot of the criticism we get is gratuitous. It’s actually not well-informed. The criticism that is well-informed, that is thoughtful, we welcome, we respect a great deal, and we stop and we contemplate because the job of Heritage at its best is always to add and multiply.
Sometimes we need to issue what I like to call “fraternal corrections.” I’ve done that a few times in my first year-plus here, people who I thought needed to be a little more thoughtful where they were criticizing the work of our colleagues here. But that’s the challenge for the conservative movement, is, how do we add and multiply? How do we remember that our movement is much bigger in terms of the number of people than the movement of the radical Left? But we’re also a lot more fragmented.
People watching or listening to this conversation no doubt know that the radical Left is almost always unified. I often get those questions, “Kevin, how do they march in lockstep all the time?” We don’t do that. We never have. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that it’s challenging and then for us at Heritage in particular because of our value proposition, which isn’t just to pontification, it isn’t just to write a white paper, it isn’t just to stroke our beards and sound smart or snarky on Twitter, it’s to actually do something, and that something is building America, that we have to do a really good job.
We in particular at Heritage have to set the standard for getting everyone to work together for the sake of effecting good policy change. That’s both hard, but it’s also really important. All of us at Heritage would say that that’s privilege.
Aschieris: Just a few final questions here. You’re talking about the people who work here and the people who have been supporters of The Heritage Foundation since the very beginning, maybe even people who just joined today or maybe will join after listening to this podcast and be a supporter of The Heritage Foundation, what is your message to them?
Roberts: Tremendous gratitude. I think about the heart of conservatism, which isn’t just self-governance. It isn’t just restoring the limited government. It’s gratitude.
I think one of the reasons that we at Heritage are able to walk into this building every day, sometimes taking fire from Congress, sometimes liberal think tanks, The Washington Post, that’s when we know we’re really over the target. We’re smiling and we’re smiling because we’re grateful to be able to do the work that we do. And we wouldn’t be able to do that work were it not for the sacrifices, financial sacrifices, of hundreds of thousands of people.
There have been something like 2.5 million different Americans who have given at least one gift to Heritage since we were founded 50 years ago. There actually isn’t a word that I can come up with that expresses how grateful I am. I hope that every single one of them, whether they gave just that one gift or whether they’ve given dozens or hundreds of gifts, knows that that really motivates our work every day.
Aschieris: Just one final question for you. As a historian, obviously, this is a very historic event, the 50th anniversary, what’s one thing or maybe a few things that you hope people will take away from our conversation today about The Heritage Foundation?
Roberts: The first is not to despair, that there are a lot of reasons to be discouraged, there are a lot of reasons to be frustrated. I try to express that frustration on behalf of all of our members, and supporters, and friends in Congress, and state legislatures so people know that we’re not being Pollyanna-ish about what’s going on in the United States. But it’s not to the point of despair.
The reason there’s hope is because there are millions of Americans who agree with us, and even though the returns in the House Republican majority are early, we’re already seeing good fruit. More importantly than anything happening in D.C. is that this 2023 legislative session across the country, I think, will be the greatest in the history of the conservative movement. Universal school choice bills in multiple states, great action on fiscal restraint, on restoring self-governance.
The second is equally important to that, that what I have seen in just 15 months here, because of Heritage’s credibility, because of our willingness to listen to others, incorporate their thoughts into what we’re doing, but then to charge hills, is that the fragmentation of the conservative movement is beginning to be healed. I am really excited about the 2024 election cycle.
Point three, and it’s my last point, is elections are important but they’re not the most important. The most important thing, and Heritage I am happy to say, proud to say, actually, is so involved in this work, is for us to be revitalizing institutions that transmit American values from one generation to the next. We’ve lost a lot there. The Left has successfully marched through most of our institutions. But we’re also beginning to win, starting new schools, new colleges, new organizations. Heritage is putting its money where it’s mouth is. We’re, as you know, spending seven figures each year on helping some of those new organizations be revitalized.
This is the point, by the end of this decade, we’re all going to be at our respective New Year’s Eve parties in 2029 and we’re going to say, “We did it.” If this in fact is the second American Revolution, hopefully bloodless, then I think we are in the middle of founding re-founding organizations, including Heritage, frankly, that are vital to self-governance not just of Americans but also for free people around the world
Aschieris: Dr. Roberts, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.
Roberts: Thanks for having me.
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