As Presidents Depart, Center-Right Think Tanks Face New Pressures

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Two of America’s largest and most prominent center-right think tanks will have new leadership next year.

The Manhattan Institute announced on last month that its president for the past 23 years, Lawrence Mone, intends to “hand over the reins of leadership to a new president in early 2019.”

And the American Enterprise Institute announced earlier this year that its president, Arthur Brooks, who has been in that job since January 1, 2009, intends to step down “in the summer of 2019.”

In the solar system of conservative ideas, the Manhattan Institute and AEI are two of the largest planets. The searches for new leadership come at a delicate moment for think tanks overall and for conservative intellectuals in particular.

The “think tank” model was under pressure even before President Donald Trump was elected. A 2010 Forbes article proclaimed “The End of the Think Tank,” pointing to the Heritage Foundation’s decision to create Heritage Action, an advocacy and grassroots organization. A 2015 article in the Washington Monthly co-written by the president of the New America Foundation, Anne-Marie Slaughter, conceded, “the think tank as a policy institution has not adapted fast enough to escape the dysfunction of Washington. Even superb policy analysis seldom results in policy change. One reason is that expert positions in many debates are alien to the mobilized bases of both parties.”

The Trump administration only heightened the concern that the think tanks were headed toward irrelevance. The columnist Patrick Buchanan described AEI’s pre-election “World Forum,” held at Sea Island, Georgia, as a ‘“Dump Trump’ camarilla.” 

“Trump could cause ‘the death of think tanks as we know them,” a Washington Post headline warned.

As with many of the Washington Post’s concerns about Trump, that one has turned out to be overstated, at least so far.

The chairman of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, Kevin Hassett, and Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, both worked at the American Enterprise Institute before joining the Trump administration. 

Michael Anton, whose pseudonymously written September 2016 essay “The Flight 93 Election” made a case for Trump, had worked for a year at the Manhattan Institute, has written a dozen pieces for MI’s City Journal, and also went to work at the Trump White House. Rudolph Giuliani, the politician most identified with the Manhattan Institute, is Trump’s lawyer, spokesman, and adviser. And the 2002 City Journal article by Victor Davis Hanson, “Do We Want Mexifornia? The flood of illegal immigration into California raises urgent questions that the whole nation must face,” anticipated an issue that Trump emphasized in his presidential campaign.

For all that, though, it was the Heritage Foundation — not the Manhattan Institute or AEI — whose influence on the Trump administration was the topic of a recent New York Times Magazine cover story. The Times quoted Heritage’s founder and former president Ed Feulner describing Heritage as “Donald Trump’s favorite think tank.”

These are big jobs. AEI has 270 employees and $75 million in annual revenue, according to its most recent tax return. The Manhattan Institute is smaller — 83 employees, $21 million in revenue — but important enough that the Wall Street Journal marked the news about Mone with both an editorial and an op-ed page excerpt of his resignation letter.

The outgoing executives exemplify contrasting approaches to leading a think tank. Brooks is a player-manager, writing a lot under his own byline, starring in YouTube videos, even appearing on a panel discussion with President Barack Obama. Mone is more self-effacing, a “quiet hero,” as the Manhattan Institute’s chairman, Paul Singer, described him in the departure announcement.

Success in a job like this requires managing both major donors and a staff of scholars. It also requires what Harvard’s new president, Lawrence Bacow, has described in the university context as “taste” — taste in people and taste in problems.

The outgoing Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, knows the donors of these organizations and has a zest for some of the yet-unsolved problems — welfare reform, entitlement reform, combating poverty. Ryan, who early in his career worked at Jack Kemp’s Empower America think tank, is a potential fit, or at least a candidate worth considering. 

Any new leader will have to reckon with both Trump and with Slaughter’s observation that “expert positions in many debates are alien to the mobilized bases of both parties” — two sides of the same coin. Perhaps the best choice of an incoming think-tank president would be someone open to reducing that expert-base gap — or at least better understanding it — by spending substantial amounts of time outside of New York or Washington.


Ira Stoll is editor of and author of JFK, Conservative.