Even before the event began yesterday, the Heritage Foundation’s latest session about Benghazi was obviously ill-advised. The gathering was organized in part by a birther conspiracy theorist who believes President Obama supports Sharia law, with a panel of guests who were slightly nuttier than their host.
Nothing good or constructive was likely to follow. But as Dana Milbank discovered, Heritage’s event took an obnoxious turn that included “the ugly taunting of a woman in the room who wore an Islamic head covering.”
The session, as usual, quickly moved beyond the specifics of the assaults that left four Americans dead to accusations about the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrating the Obama administration, President Obama funding jihadists in their quest to destroy the United States, Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton attempting to impose Sharia blasphemy laws on Americans and Al Jazeera America being an organ of “enemy propaganda.”Then Saba Ahmed, an American University law student, stood in the back of the room and asked a question in a soft voice. “We portray Islam and all Muslims as bad, but there’s 1.8 billion followers of Islam,” she told them. “We have 8 million-plus Muslim Americans in this country and I don’t see them represented here.”
This was not well received. Assorted panelists took the opportunity to move past their ridiculous Benghazi conspiracy theories to instead share their ridiculous anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, to the delight of the right-wing guests in the audience.
The panel’s moderator, conservative radio host Chris Plante, grinned and joined in the assault. “Can you tell me who the head of the Muslim peace movement is?” he demanded of Ahmed. “Yeah,” audience members taunted, “yeah.”Ahmed answered quietly, as before. “I guess it’s me right now,” she said.
The toxicity obviously matters, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that this ugliness was on display at a forum hosted by a think tank.
It’s easy to forget, but the Heritage Foundation used to characterize itself as a flagship of the conservative movement, home to the right’s preeminent scholarship and academic research. Its panel discussions were intended to highlight the right’s brightest minds and most insightful thinkers.
And now, it’s become … this.
Also note, while one might expect such a display at an event like CPAC, let’s pause to acknowledge that CPAC banned anti-Muslim extremists like Frank Gaffney – but Gaffney was on yesterday’s Heritage panel.
In other words, we’ve reached the point at which fringe figures too extreme for CPAC are now welcome to share their bizarre ideas at Heritage.
What’s more, the Muslim woman taunted at yesterday’s event? She’s an anti-abortion Republican (via Robert Mackey).
I’m reminded of something Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told msnbc last fall. “Heritage used to be the conservative organization helping Republicans and helping conservatives and helping us to be able to have the best intellectual conservative ideas,” he argued. “There’s a real question in the minds of many Republicans right now, and I’m not just speaking for myself: Is Heritage going to go so political that it really doesn’t amount to anything anymore?”
As we talked about at the time, this is a specific kind of criticism that shouldn’t be overlooked. Hatch, who’s no doubt worked with Heritage many times during his nearly four decades in the Senate, isn’t complaining about the organization’s position on a contentious issue; he’s questioning whether Heritage even matters anymore.
The role of Heritage and institutions like it don’t get a lot of attention outside the Beltway, but parties and even political movements have traditionally relied on an intellectual core that bolsters a policy agenda with research, scholarship, data, and substance. For the Republican Party, this meant Heritage played an important role for years in helping guide the GOP’s national direction.
But that’s over now. Republicans are becoming a post-policy party, in part due to ideological radicalism, and in part because of the deterioration of the party’s intellectual infrastructure – captured perfectly by Heritage’s transition from think tank to right-wing activist group.
Update: Media Matters has the video of yesterday’s Heritage event.