Is Michael Needham Ready For His National Coming Out Party?
Michael Needham first started appearing on the pages of this blog just over a month ago, in a story about how the Republican Party is being Cruzified. Needham is a spoiled, slimy little operative for the right-wing extremists around Jim DeMint and his Texas protégé, Ted Cruz. Needham was celebrated by the Wall Street Journal at the time as one of "the masterminds behind a new generation of young conservatives." He likes taking credit for the government shutdown and promises there's plenty more like that to come. A Republican Party Madame Thérèse Defarge, Needham is deciding who's a real conservative and who's just a faker.
Yesterday, Chris Hayes sat down with Julia Ioffe, author of the much-noted New Republic Needham exposé, A 31-Year-Old Is Tearing Apart The Heritage Foundation. Needham credits his demented strategy to a shiny new millennial mindset-- rather than to America's existentially dangerous and brutally ravenous plutocracy. Even admirers say, "I consider him a friend but he’s a huge asshole." The asshole has managed to utterly take over and remake the Heritage Foundation in his own asshole image.
Needham is the 31-year-old CEO of Heritage Action, the relatively new activist branch of the Heritage Foundation, the storied Washington think tank that was one of the leaders of the conservative war of ideas ever since it provided the blueprint for Ronald Reagan’s first term. Although DeMint is Heritage’s president, it was Needham who had designed much of the defund Obamacare strategy. Beginning in 2010, when Heritage Action was founded, Needham pushed the GOP to use Congress’s power of the purse to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act. He formed a grassroots army, which he used to keep congressional Republicans in line. “They make six hundred phone calls and have a member of Congress in the fetal position,” says one GOP congressional staffer.
After months of furious lobbying, Needham sold, at most, 20 members of the House on his plan of attack. In the end, this was enough to cement the party line—and lead the GOP to a spectacular, deafening loss.
Sorting through the wreckage, Washington conservatives can barely contain their anger at Needham for his ideological inflexibility and aggressive, zero-sum tactics. “Their strategic sense isn’t very strong,” griped a prominent Republican lobbyist. “They’ve repeatedly been wrong about how to handle this.” Says a senior House Republican aide, “Mike Needham played a large role in defeating ideas that would have worked out better.”
But the wrath is not solely reserved for Needham; his employer now inspires plenty of disgust among conservatives, too. Increasingly in Washington, “Heritage” has come to denote not the foundation or the think tank, but Heritage Action, Needham’s sharp-elbowed operation. Instead of fleshing out conservative positions, says one Republican Senate staffer, “now they’re running around trying to get Republicans voted out of office. It’s a purely ideological crusade that’s utterly divorced from the research side.” (“If Nancy Pelosi could write an anonymous check to Heritage Action,” adds the House aide bitterly, “she would.”)
As a result, the Heritage Foundation has gone from august conservative think tank revered by Washington’s Republicans to the party’s loathed ideological commissar. “It’s sad, actually,” says one Republican strategist. “Everybody forgets that Heritage was always considered the gold standard of conservative, forward-looking thought. The emergence of Heritage Action has really transformed the brand into a more political organization.”
Needham’s strategy has also sparked a war inside the halls of the foundation itself, where many feel duped by the stealthy yet brutal way the Heritage Action takeover went down. Some now wonder whether the foundation can ever recover its reputation as a font of ideas. “I don’t think any thoughtful person is going to take the Heritage Foundation very seriously, because they’ll say, How is this any different from the Tea Party?” says Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman and a founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation. Looking at the organization he helped to create, Edwards finds it unrecognizable. “Going out there and trying to defeat people who don’t agree with us never occurred to us,” said Edwards. “It’s alien.”
…Like all good revolutionaries, Michael Needham had a sterling upbringing, the kind that allows a young man to pursue ideological purity free from worry about consequence or reality. Needham’s mother is a former Saks Fifth Avenue executive; his father runs a boutique investment bank. The future Tea Party rabble-rouser grew up on the Upper East Side. He attended Collegiate, a prestigious New York prep school, then Williams. As a political science major and, eventually, the editor of the college newspaper, Needham loved to provoke his liberal classmates, arguing that Social Security was unnecessary and that the minimum wage hurt the working poor. “It’s amazing how little reflection he’s given to his privilege,” says a classmate. "It was all kind of a game to him. It was an experiment in winning.”
…On issue after issue, Needham’s ideological flame-throwing has made Heritage Action enemies in even the most conservative corners of Congress. Says the House GOP aide, “People on the Hill are very much rubbed the wrong way by a former Giuliani staffer who is around thirty years old, running around and determining whether they’re conservative or not.”
With DeMint’s arrival, Heritage’s government relations team, which once boasted the ability to meet with 250 GOP and as many as 40 Democratic congressmen on any given day, disappeared. “The people at government affairs would go down to the Hill, and they had Hill folks saying, ‘Listen, we don’t want to meet with you because of what the folks at Heritage Action did yesterday,’” says the former Heritage staffer. Heritage analysts now have a hard time getting meetings on the Hill, even with Republicans. The congressional staffer told me that, for many Republican members of the House, “their research staff is probably not dealing much with Heritage anymore. They’re systematically going elsewhere for their information.”
Shortly after this summer’s farm bill debacle (Heritage Action pushed members to rid the bill of its food-stamp half, then still sent out a “no” alert on the revised bill, hanging out to dry members from agricultural districts), the outrage was such that the Heritage Foundation was banned from the weekly lunches of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a conservative caucus of House Republicans. This was particularly ironic as the RSC and Heritage were once interwoven: In the 1970s, Feulner had been the RSC’s first executive director. “It really speaks volumes about a betrayal of trust,” says the Republican strategist. The House GOP aide puts it more starkly: “There are over two hundred thirty bridges to be burned in the House. Over two hundred of them are burned, and they maybe have about thirty more left.”
The frustration grew in the build up to the budget fight as Heritage Action organized DeMint’s nine-city tour, and Needham blitzed the conservative media--giving constituents the impression that defunding Obamacare in one knockout move was perfectly plausible. In meetings, congressional staffers couldn’t even get Heritage Action to entertain the possibility that the strategy might fail. “They never wanted to discuss anything past defund,” recalls the Republican staffer. “We would ask, ‘What if [Democrats] say no and don’t budge, what do you do then?’ They kept saying: ‘That’s not our role. You figure it out.’” In an August interview with CSPAN, Needham was asked a similar question: How can Republicans achieve their goal of defunding Obamacare without control of the Senate or the White House? “I think that, rather than trying to figure out where we’re going to be at the end of September,” Needham said, his underbite jutting contemptuously, “we should actually fight for something.”
But congressional staffers couldn’t fully ignore Needham. Heritage Action sent e-mails out to its grassroots army, telling its foot soldiers to press their representatives to hold the defund-or-else line. Many Republicans, who felt less than certain about the defund strategy, felt entrapped, especially when these angry constituents confronted them at town halls. “They created this false narrative,” says the Republican staffer. Inevitably, the semi-regular Hill meetings between staffers and Heritage Action grew tense. As the staffer explains, “People came away with the feeling that they’re willing to drive a truck off a cliff, but with no purpose.”
On the morning of October 16, just hours before a deadline whose crossing could have pushed the United States into default, and hours before a deal averted that possibility and ended the 16-day government shutdown, after weeks of pushing House Republicans not to back down from the defund Obamacare plan that had gotten everyone to this point to begin with, Needham appeared on Fox News. “Everybody understands that we’re not going to be able to repeal this law until 2017 and that we have to win the Senate and we have to win the White House,” he said.
The hypocrisy was not lost on many House Republicans, who, for all those weeks, had lived in fear of Needham and Heritage Action. As the day wore on, the video made the rounds to much indignant headshaking. “A lot of people were upset,” says the Republican staffer. “If it was impossible, then why was he going around the country convincing other well-intentioned people that it was absolutely doable? To suddenly say at the end that we knew this all along struck a lot of people as disingenuous.” It struck others as a lily-livered delusion. “It was like a general applauding himself for reaching the top of the hill, while the army is being slaughtered at the bottom,” says one Republican strategist.
And yet Needham’s blithe remark came as no surprise to the former veteran staffer at the Heritage Foundation. “One of the hallmarks of that millennial profile is an inability to acknowledge mistakes,” the staffer said, sounding equal parts bemused and exasperated. “Everything is right and nothing was a mistake, and they can spin it any way they want.”
In keeping with this philosophy, later that morning, Heritage Action would issue another alert. Despite Needham’s admission that the imminent repeal of the Affordable Care Act was a lost cause, the alert warned House members to vote against the budget deal. “Heritage Action opposes the Senate-negotiated proposal and will include it as a key vote on our legislative scorecard,” it said. To this day, Needham stands by his strategy. It “may feel like bullying to a member of Congress,” he told Politico Magazine, “but it’s the reality of the world that we live in.”