The man who founded the Heritage Foundation in the 1970s explains how to build a think tank ‘for the long haul.’

Ed Feulner, who is finishing a 35-year run as the president of the Heritage Foundation, should be glum. As one of conservatism’s senior officers in the war of ideas and policy, Mr. Feulner is relinquishing the Heritage presidency in the wake of a losing presidential campaign. Instead, he hands a postelection visitor a copy of Heritage’s weekly agenda and points to the “thought for the week.” It is George Washington’s July 1777 letter to one of his generals:

“We should never despair, our Situation before has been unpromising and has changed for the better, so I trust, it will again. If new difficulties arise, we must only put forth new exertions and proportion our efforts to the exigency of the times.”

It is perhaps no accident that the Heritage Foundation under Edwin J. Feulner rose to power in Washington during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. One can see traits common to both these conservatives: early life in the Midwest (Mr. Feulner is from Chicago), a lifelong fascination with the ideas that shape or damage a nation, but most notably a natural optimism about the American future.

Terry ShoffnerEd Feulner

Mr. Feulner is about to hand the intellectual and political assets of the Washington think tank to South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint. “Jim is committed to the centrality of ideas and research,” Mr. Feulner said this week, hours after the Heritage board finalized the selection. “What conservative policy should be is being reaffirmed by Jim DeMint. It’s very exciting.”

Sitting for a chat in Mr. Feulner’s comfortable offices at Heritage, which by intention sit in the shadow of the Capitol, I tried to poke here and there for some sign of despondency amid the rubble of an election that returned to office a president who probably sticks pins at night into a Reagan doll. Couldn’t do it.

“We’ve been here before—1964, Barry Goldwater, 1976 when Ronald Reagan lost to Jerry Ford, Bill Clinton wins, and 2008 when Obama first won. But you look at each one of those, and it isn’t that much longer before things turn around. By 1980 Reagan’s back. 2008 Obama wins, and 2010 we come in with the largest majority we’ve had in the House. 2012 Obama’s back. 2014 there again can be a reversal.”

Of Heritage itself he says, “We’re in this thing for the long haul.”

Columnist Dan Henninger on South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint stepping down to head the Heritage Foundation. Photos: Associated Press

After collecting an M.B.A. from Wharton and a doctorate from the University of Edinburgh, Ed Feulner’s own long haul through politics began in the 1960s with one of the policy-oriented institutions rotating around official Washington back then, the Center for Strategic Studies. From there he migrated to work for Illinois Congressman Phil Crane, who was somewhat famous then simply for self-identifying as a conservative.

Mr. Feulner’s sidekick in Congress was a Senate aide named Paul Weyrich, whom no one confused for anything but a conservative. Over breakfast one day, the two aides got talking about how analytical papers from the Washington policy community would float in and out of Congress to no particular effect. “Well,” says Mr. Feulner recalling the light-bulb moment, “so you gave somebody a fee for writing a paper, you gave librarians work to do, you killed a couple of trees but what else did you accomplish? Why bother?” He leans forward for the main point: “You gotta get it in the process early, or nobody will pay attention.”

With $250,000 from beer magnate Joseph Coors, the two created the Heritage Foundation in 1974. By 1977, Mr. Feulner was in charge of the place.

“We defined our audience specifically,” says Mr. Feulner. “It is Congress and congressional staff. That’s why we’re here on Capitol Hill. That’s our target.” With the target sighted, Mr. Feulner next turned his efforts to what he calls “marketing the product.”

“Our first product mix centered on those little 10 to 15 page studies that we call Backgrounders.”

Ah, yes, the Heritage Backgrounders, an interesting subject. Years ago, when much of the Beltway media began to infuse political writing with partisan snark and spin, it became common practice to label the Feulner shop as “the conservative” or even “right-wing” Heritage Foundation, the intent of course being to suggest that its work was hopelessly biased and pro-Republican.

In fact, the Heritage Backgrounders were go-to documents for people of any political stripe writing about policy because their front end was always a straight, serious summary of the facts in play. The policy position was appended at the end. Heritage’s Backgrounders became one of the few places in Washington one could get a simple set of facts.

Ed Feulner is proud of that: “The late Bill Raspberry”—a liberal Washington Post columnist—”once said to me, ‘The neat thing about Heritage is I know I can rely on the facts, then you come to the last page and I rip that off.’ But sometimes Bill Raspberry forgot to rip off the final page, because he came out and favored school choice.”

In Mr. Feulner’s mind, factual accuracy was part of marketing: “The numbers have to work because if you give this to a committee chairman, and if it turns out your numbers aren’t right, you’ve let them down and they’re sure not gonna be relying on you in the future.”

Though the phrase “war of ideas” suggests two sides lobbing salvos of intellectual mortar shells, Mr. Feulner thinks it’s important to have some respect for the origin of an opponent’s ideas, no matter one’s opinion. “Look at the incumbent and the role Saul Alinsky played on him,” he says of the Chicago community organizer Barack Obama cites as an influence. “Yeah, I suppose you could call him an activist, but I mean basically he’s talking about how to organize and how to get out there and beat the system.”

Ed Feulner’s taste in activists with ideas runs to people like Friedrich Hayek, whom the Heritage president once introduced in the Oval Office to President Ronald Reagan, a Hayek fan. Mr. Feulner has the framed original of a Forbes magazine cover illustration of Hayek hanging in his office.

The story impels Mr. Feulner to draw a distinction of self-definition that the think tank’s critics would find preposterous: “We are conservative. We are not Republican.”

There’s a difference? He says there used to be.

“Somewhere up here,” says Mr. Feulner, waving at a wall behind him of photographs of himself with notable conservatives, from Clare Boothe Luce to Pope John Paul II, “there’s a photo of Jack Kemp,” the former Republican congressman from Buffalo and Bob Dole’s running mate. “Kemp, you’ll recall, started urban enterprise zones with the support of Bob Garcia, a Democrat from the Bronx and as liberal as Kemp was conservative. But the two of them had this idea together and by gosh, they ran with it.”

Mr. Feulner’s visitor reminds him there was a time when even a conservative editorial page was once able to support Democratic ideas, such as the Bradley-Gephardt tax-simplification proposal in the 1980s. But that was before soak-the-rich trumped tax-code efficiency as a Democratic governing idea.

“Part of the change, of course, is that the old Blue Dog seats are now Republican seats and the old liberal Republican seats are now Democrat seats. So there is more of an alignment of ideology with the parties, which might make us look more Republican rather than conservative. But we don’t like to be defined that way.”

Sen. DeMint, in an interview with the Journal the day before the announcement of his appointment, said he would attempt to reach out to Democrats beyond Washington: “There’s a good possibility we will work outside the partisan arena with Democrats, at the state level, on issues such as education or adoption and foster care. The partisanship can drop away.”

A fear of being pigeonholed was the reason for one of Mr. Feulner’s earliest decisions—to expand Heritage’s support base away from a handful of wealthy supporters to its current membership, which numbers over 600,000 donors. Soon after Mr. Feulner assumed the Heritage presidency in the mid-1970s, the Washington Post did a series about the man who supplied the organization’s seed money, Joseph Coors.

“The idea got about,” recalls Mr. Feulner, “that Joe Coors is gonna take over the town. Not only is his beer going nationwide but his influence is as well. We said internally that we’ve got to have a broad base of support. We can’t be accused of being Joe Coors’s think tank. We worked at it and within a couple of years, we were up to about 87,000 members.” Mr. Feulner says he’s proud that unlike some of his liberal competitors, Heritage gets no money from the federal government.

The broader support became important years later when Heritage got crosswise with a primary funder, the textile magnate Roger Milliken of South Carolina: “Roger came in to see me and said ‘Ed, I really love what you guys are doing here at Heritage, and I believe in the free enterprise system, except for the multi-fiber agreement [a textile quota system] and, you know, you really gotta rethink this.’ And I said, ‘Sorry Roger, you know, we’re free traders. When you had me down there to your plant, I asked why should you be able to buy a German spinning mill and a Japanese loom but my wife can’t buy a Malaysian shirt for our kids down at Wal-MartWMT -0.26% .’ I told him it doesn’t make sense. And he ripped up the check in front of me. In my opinion, you cannot let yourself become dependent on a handful of people.”

Now that he’s spent a lifetime battling the bad ideas of both liberals and conservatives, I wonder how Mr. Feulner views the result—whether the ratchet of government growth sometimes looks inexorably larger. “You know,” he answers, “I am described around this building as a congenital optimist. But if you want to be pessimistic, just look at the incredible spending numbers that you’re talking about. So yeah, are we destined to always fight over marginal programs or”—the room nearly hums as the optimism comes back on—”can we as a people come together to rethink this and say there is something positively good about the work ethic?”

The thought enlivens the departing think-tanker. Suddenly he’s talking about “our strong bench”— Ryan, Walker, Cruz, Rubio. California’s recent vote to raise taxes was a loss “but look what Michigan did on Prop. 2” (a defeat for embedding collective bargaining in the state constitution). The idea marketer asks whether politicized plutocrats like Linda McMahon of Connecticut or Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas might not get more bang for their bucks supporting conservative ideas rather than politicians. And the marketer professes to be puzzled about “how you get people to pay attention to an article that can’t be explained in a 140-character tweet.”

One asks if a world filling up with tweets, left-wing think tanks, political websites, and conservative Super PACs such as FreedomWorks and American Crossroads means that an established outfit like Heritage is going to have trouble sustaining financial support.

Mr. Feulner sees a glass half-full. Actually it’s a pie: “It might look like your slice of the pie gets smaller, but the pie is getting bigger as more and more people are brought in.” He observes irrefutably: “Thirty-five years ago, there weren’t 600,000 people in the United States who knew what a think tank was.”

The interview is ending, but the juices inside the 71-year-old idea warrior are bubbling: “Who made the call that Paul Ryan couldn’t give that Cleveland speech until 10 days before the election, on what conservatives think about how we relate to the aspirations of all American people? I mean he’s talking about civil society. Civil society is not something that’s imposed by Kathleen Sebelius.”

At the end, I ask the Heritage president of 35 years: What lies in the future? I’m asking about Ed Feulner’s future, but that’s not what he has on his mind. “Big arguments,” he says. “Big discussions coming.”

Mr. Henninger is the deputy editorial page editor of the Journal.

A version of this article appeared December 8, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Lesson in Conservative Optimism.

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