Right's new weapon -- think tanks

How sweet success is. Edwin J. Feulner Jr. stretches back in his chair, his arm folded behind his head and a grin on his face, and confesses, "I love it." As president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, Mr. Feulner is riding the wave that swept President Reagan into office. His foundation is one of a burgeoning network of think tanks, research centers that have suddenly found themselves near the center of power.

They are providing studies, position papers, and, in some cases, personnel to reshape America in a more conservative mold -- slashing government spending, cutting regulation, and rebuilding the military.

These think tanks now have a US president who is listening to them.

On the desk in front of Mr. Feulner in his Williamsburg-style office lies a thick stack of pink message slips from job seekers who believe he has enough clout to help find them a job in the new administration. Eleven Heritage Foundation staffers helped out in the Reagan transition effort, and the foundation's former vice-president now holds a personnel post at the White House.

The Heritage Foundation was prepared for the Reagan takeover. For the past year it had been toiling away on a monumental study: 1,093 printed pages detailing ways to overhaul the federal government.

Feulner recalls that a reporter phoned him soon after the election, saying, "Now I guess I'll have to read it."

For years it seemed that the liberals had a monopoly on college faculties and public policy think tanks. In Washington, the venerable 60-year-old Brookings Institution fed Democratic administrations with ideas and some of their top appointees. Brookings had little competition.

But today clearly belongs to the conservatives who during the past decade have been studiously building up an impressive array of study centers across the country. As a rule, these centers favor a strong defense and oppose big government. They range from the Hoover Institution, founded as an anticommunist think tank at Stanford University, to the San Francisco-based Institute for Contemporary Studies (founded by top Reagan adviser Edwin Meese III), to several Washington-based think tanks.

Conservatism has "been the intellectual mainstream in the past few years," says Feulner, but it has been out of power in Washington. As a result, he says, "we've had to sharpen our arguments more than liberals."

His feisty Heritage Foundation has been sharpening arguments since it was founded with money from conservative beer company executive Joseph Coors seven years ago. It has grown at a rate of about $1 million a year to its current $5 million-plus budget, which is supplied by grants from family foundations, Mr. Coors, and corporations, as well as from small gifts from 120,000 individuals.

Not surprisingly, Feulner reports that fund raising now is doing better than ever.

The foundation's staff of about 20 scholars, most of them working toward PhDs and nearly all under 40, works out of three remodeled row houses just a few blocks from Capitol Hill (all the better to keep a close watch on Congress, says Feulner). Here they churn out papers on issues ranging from abortion (which the foundation opposes) to welfare reform and Afghanistan.

These short position papers on hot topics have made a visible impact. Feulner, a former Republican staffer in Congress, says he found that 400- to 500 -page books were too long, and that short and rapidly produced papers had more effect on lawmakers.

Since the election, Feulner says, his foundation has turned from attacker to defender, since he expects to provide the "intellectual framework" for conservative policies. He also promises he will stand ready to criticize if Mr. Reagan is not conservative enough.

All the new attention has caused the foundation to put in several new phone lines, and it has expanded into a third building. But its new status also has its pitfalls. Says Feulner, "Somebody on the [Capitol] Hill, not one of our allies, said, 'It's going to be easier to throw grenades than to catch them.'"

While the Heritage Foundation supplies the public and government with a steady flow of its opinions, other think tanks have even closer ties with the new administration. They are providing some of President Reagan's top appointees, including Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., UN Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, and National Security Adviser Richard V. Allen.

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington-based think tank with a Republican and conservative flavor, was barely hanging on during the 1960s. During the last five years it has grown into a giant $10.4 million operation equal to Brookings.

Shortly after the election, President Reagan honored AEI by making one of his first appearances at its dinner, and its pool of scholars and experts provided the President with six top appointees, including UN Ambassador Kirkpatrick.

Although much closer to the political center than the unabashedly right-wing Heritage Foundation, AEI "attracts scholars who will tend to look first to the private sector for solutions," says the institute's president, William J. Baroody Jr. AEI also has put government regulation of business under close scrutiny and produces a bimonthly magazine devoted to coping with red tape.

In military and international affairs, the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University has been supplying research from the hard-line, pro-defense and anti-communist viewpoint for almost 20 years. During the last five years its budget has shot from $1.5 million to $4.5 million.

Under President Carter, the Georgetown center held little sway, but it now expects to play an important role.

"Al Haig's office used to be next to mine," says Sterling Slappey, spokesman for the center, which is headquartered a few blocks from the White House. "If Dave Abshire [president of the center] calls Al Haig, Haig's going to return that call."

Not only did the center provide a base of operations for General Haig, it also once had on its staff National Security Adviser Allen, and still has an office for Henry Kissinger.

"We are hard line and big on the military," says Slappey. In his view, the sudden rise in the Georgetown center's importance shows that "other people have come around to our way of thinking."

Liberals who have suddenly become aware of the entrenched network of such conservative study centers now are calling for building up similar think tanks for their side.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Right's new weapon -- think tanks
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today