Michael Needham: The Strategist Behind the Shutdown

The 31-year-old Stanford business grad explains how he outmaneuvered GOP leaders and why he thinks House Republicans can defund ObamaCare.

Michael Needham

Michael Needham


From The Wall Street Journal, By Stephen Moore, 10/11/13 –‘I really believe we are in a great position right now,” says Michael Needham, the 31-year-old president of Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the nation’s largest conservative think tank. By “we” he means the Republican Party and the conservative movement; their “great position” refers to the potential to win the political battle over the government shutdown.

Though Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is the public face of the high-risk strategy to “defund” ObamaCare, the masterminds behind it are a new generation of young conservatives, chief among them Mr. Needham.
From a tactical view, the strategy has been deployed with precision. In August, only Mr. Cruz and a band of renegade tea-party Republicans in the House favored this approach, and the media collectively scoffed. But by September, House Republicans couldn’t pass a budget without attaching the defunding rider that has grounded much of government.
“We rallied the conservative grass roots across the country,” Mr. Needham says, and ran ads in more than 100 districts on the health law. It worked. During the August recess, these activists demanded that their members of Congress stop ObamaCare.To most observers, who think the GOP is losing this fight, Mr. Needham’s optimism that Republicans will carry the day may seem astonishing. But Mr. Needham says the second-guessers are wrong.
“We just spent the last three months talking about nothing else but ObamaCare. It has been on the front page of every newspaper. The polls show ObamaCare’s more unpopular than ever. People are starting to wake up that it isn’t going to work at all,” he says. “Even Jon Stewart of ‘The Daily Show’ is making fun of the law.” On Monday, Mr. Stewart had Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as a guest, Mr. Needham notes, and the host “bet that he could download every movie ever made before she could log on to the ObamaCare website.”

Has the House GOP strategy gone at all awry? Mr. Needham says no. “If conservative groups like Heritage Action hadn’t raised the stakes on ObamaCare,” he says, “we’d be debating on their side of the football field talking about tax increases, gun control, more spending and amnesty for illegal immigrants.” He notes that in addition to remaining steadfast on defunding ObamaCare, he and his allies are also supporting conservative goals such as preserving the spending caps and budget sequester.

Mr. Needham is not apologetic at all for the shutdown that he sees as regrettable but necessary collateral damage if it focuses the public on the horrors of the health-care law. “I think people who don’t follow politics as closely as you and I do, which is most normal people, only pay attention when something major’s going on. Why is there a government shutdown going on? Because the Republican Party wants to get rid of ObamaCare,” says the highly disciplined Mr. Needham, who rarely strays from that message.

Mr. Needham and another young activist, Tim Chapman, wrote the business plan for Heritage Action four years ago. The idea was to tap Heritage’s network of conservative donors across the country and create a political lobbying machine to carry conservative ideas across the goal line.

“We were always frustrated that whenever we met with Congress, there were always 30,000 lobbyists lined up in the waiting room on the other side,” he says. “We felt that to market our policy ideas successfully in 21st-century Washington, D.C., required going above the heads of members of Congress directly to their constituents who shared our conservative values.”

The group’s first initiative in 2010 was to pass a “discharge petition” to get a vote on the House floor to repeal ObamaCare. The idea was hatched only weeks after the law had narrowly passed. Many Capitol Hill veterans thought they were crazy.

“The strategy from day one once it passed was repeal, repeal, repeal,” Mr. Needham says. Republicans were “very split as to what to do. Some said, ‘Look, it’s the law of the land, how do we improve it?’ Our response was we’re not going to tweak it, we’re not going to fix it, we’re going to get rid of the whole law.” That vision and the ensuing battle plan have impressively—or ruinously, depending on your point of view—culminated in the current shutdown.

Mr. Needham is a Stanford business-school grad, conservative to the core, uncompromising and skilled in the smash-mouth politics now played in Washington. His first job was as research assistant—then speech writer and eventually chief of staff—for Heritage founder Ed Feulner, who stepped down as president in April. (Full disclosure: I worked for Mr. Feulner from 1983-88.) Mr. Needham’s new boss at Heritage is Jim DeMint, the former South Carolina senator whose former aides populate the staff of Sen. Cruz and other conservative groups and work closely with Mr. Needham.

Mr. Feulner was famous for preaching that “in the war of ideas there is no room for pacifists,” and Mr. Needham has taken those words to heart. To his admirers, he has pushed the Republicans to show backbone and stand up for principle. His detractors, many of them inside the party, denounce him as everything from cocky to a GOP wrecking ball.

Several sources I have interviewed inside and outside of Heritage have complained of late that Mr. Needham’s $7 million lobbying shop has become the tail that wags the $75 million think tank. “I hope that’s not true,” he responds. He says Heritage Action amplifies the message of Heritage scholars.

These pages have disagreed with the shutdown strategy, though certainly not the goal to end ObamaCare, so I press him on whether this high-risk strategy has really been worth it. Here he becomes slightly defensive.

“Look, ObamaCare is going to be the end of the American free-enterprise health-care system. We needed a plan to stop it. And if anybody has a plan other than what we’re proposing, let’s discuss it,” Mr. Needham says, adding that his is the only game in town.

He says the path to victory now is for the House to keep passing bills to open up popular agencies of government, such as the national parks, the National Institutes of Health and Veterans Affairs: “I don’t think that the Senate can keep refusing to open up these agencies as the shutdown drags on and on and on.”

Mr. Needham thinks, by the way, that the stalemate may drag on well beyond Oct. 17, the day the U.S. Treasury may reach the federal borrowing limit. He has little problem with the latest strategy to pass a temporary debt-ceiling extension, viewing the debt-default debate as a distraction from the battle over the future of ObamaCare funding.

President Obama is the one in an “untenable position,” Mr. Needham says. It is “totally unfair to say, ‘We’re going to give a delay of the employer mandate, but we will not give that same delay to the individual mandate, and we’re going to exempt members of Congress.’ A united conservative party making the case, day in and day out, about the fundamental unfairness of the way the president is implementing this law is a winning argument,” he says. And it “inspires people and gets them on our side.”

But, I remind him, Mr. Obama so far has shown no inclination to sign a budget that defunds his signature achievement. “I regret that the president’s not willing to respect the bicameral system that we have, the separation of powers, and the power of the purse of the House,” Mr. Needham says with a note of contempt. “I think it is babyish for him to stand there and say, ‘Despite the fact that our Constitution gives the power of the purse to the House, I refuse to respect that.’ ”

This power-of-the-purse issue is a huge bone of contention between the left and the right as they grapple over how the $3.5 trillion government in Washington gets funded. Mr. Obama contends that one party controlling one chamber of the legislature doesn’t have the unilateral right to decide what gets funded and what doesn’t. Conservatives like Mr. Needham insist that the liberals are wrong.

“What Mr. Obama is really saying,” Mr. Needham says, “is ‘Washington should be on autopilot,’ right? And if that’s the case, Democrats should have the honesty to say we should repeal the congressional power of the purse. And we should say, ‘Look, we’ve got a perpetual appropriation.’ ” His point is that this isn’t the way the Founders set up the government.

One matter that has incensed many Republican leaders has been Mr. Needham’s opposition to GOP bills that don’t meet his purity test. Several weeks ago, for example, the House passed a bill separating food-stamp funding from the farm bill, but Heritage Action lobbied against it because the cuts weren’t deep enough. The bill passed, but Heritage almost delivered a huge tactical victory for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

Heritage Action has also refused to back House budget bills that don’t defund or suspend ObamaCare. Mr. Needham disparages one possible compromise that would drop defunding of ObamaCare but would eliminate the job-killing medical-device tax. He calls this “corporate cronyism” because “with all the pain and suffering that ObamaCare has inflicted on the country, to get out of this fight and only repeal a tax that affects just one industry is pretty laughable.”

On the latest offer from House Republicans—a short-term extension of the debt ceiling—Mr. Needham calls it a shrewd move by Speaker John Boehner: “We’ve got to get back to the discussion of ObamaCare, not the typical Washington food fight.”

The shutdown could go on for many more weeks, Mr. Needham predicts, but he is not persuaded that it would be a negative for the economy, especially compared with the hit to the economy from ObamaCare. “Look, I would be willing to keep the NLRB, the EPA and the IRS closed as long as the president wants to,” he says. Voters wouldn’t mind either, he thinks, even though according to the latest polls Republicans are getting most of the blame.

The concern of many Republicans, including strategist Karl Rove, is that Heritage Action’s take-no-prisoners approach is hurting the party. The latest Gallup poll shows the GOP is viewed favorably by only 28% of Americans, down 10 points since September.

Mr. Needham blames the GOP for not focusing enough on ObamaCare, adding that “there is nothing in my mission statement that says anything about the Republican Party. Our mission is to advance the conservative agenda. We are nonpartisan and we really mean it.” He’s confident that Republicans will do fine in the 2014 elections if they stand firm in the fight, and he blames Mr. Rove and others for criticizing Ted Cruz.

So what is the endgame—is there any exit strategy short of Mr. Obama rolling over? Mr. Needham admits that ObamaCare will never be repealed as long as Mr. Obama is president, but he still thinks it can be defunded or delayed: “Look, Democrats usually win these fights because they do a better job of not cracking. Obama says he will never blink and we believe him. They’re very good at this. We’re obviously very bad at it.”

At some point, doesn’t there have to be a compromise? That’s the way the system works, after all. Yes, Mr. Needham agrees, “at some point in this fight somebody has to blink.” His mission, he says, is to persuade “the House not to blink first.”

Mr. Moore is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.

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