Progressive politics is back. It's smarter, it's sleeker, and it's moving America forward, one policy memo at a time.
That's the message, at least, at the Center for American Progress (CAP)-the rising star in a new generation of liberal think tanks designed to imitate the strategy of their conservative counterparts in Washington's war of ideas.
Democratic disillusionment fueled liberal think-tank growth following the 2004 presidential election, when Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) lost even after donors poured millions into Democratic "527" groups like MoveOn.org. In January 2005, the nation's wealthiest liberal donors banded together to support a new political proposition-that in order to win, the Democrats would have to think beyond the next election cycle.
Members of the resulting partnership, the Democracy Alliance, each pledged to spend $1 million or more to develop new liberal think tanks with the funding and brainpower to compete with the conservative establishment.
Democracy Alliance founder Rob Stein is an avid student of prominent conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute, as well as training programs like the Leadership Institute and Young America's Foundation.
Addressing an audience at the conservative Hudson Institute last November, Stein offered rare strategic insights into the development of his donor group. "[I]n addition to looking at the conservative right's intellectual infrastructure, my colleagues and I also researched your targeted media, leadership development, and civic engagement groups," he said. "Those of you in this room who have been part of the conservative right movement in the past 30 years have good reason to be very proud of your organizational accomplishments."
Armed with his opposition research, Stein traveled the country, delivering 300 Power Point presentations to the political leaders, activists, and donors of what he terms the "center-left movement." While the identities of the 100-plus Democracy Alliance donors remain shrouded in privacy agreements, they have collectively agreed to contribute $80 million by the end of the decade to revitalize the intellectual left.
Participation allows donors to invest strategically, with the Alliance screening process as a de facto clearinghouse for approved liberal organizations. But strategic coherence has a price, as Alliance decisions threaten the survival of liberal organizations that fail to receive its blessing.
Since think tanks and other nonprofits are exempt from disclosure laws, others worry about the effects of large and unaccountable political contributions.
Liberal groups that are approved for Alliance funding are now carving particular niches in the think-tank market, often directly squaring off against parallel conservative institutions. Media Matters for America tracks conservative bias in the media, while the Media Research Center tracks liberal bias. The Center for Progressive Leadership trains young activists on the left, while the Leadership Institute trains activists on the right.
But the Center for American Progress remains a luminary in the new generation of liberal think tanks. Founded in summer 2003, CAP was the brainchild of John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. Considered a liberal version of the Heritage Foundation, CAP received $5 million in the first round of Alliance funding. Podesta now describes the organization as a "think tank on steroids."
Despite its relative youth, the rookie think tank has successfully attracted scholars who gravitate to its aggressive political liberalism. "I felt that the intellectual debate had been dominated too much by people on the more conservative . . . part of the spectrum," said Senior Fellow Larry Korb, who worked for both the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution before joining CAP in September 2003. "It was exciting to join a new think tank that was trying to make its mark."
An event with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in early March illustrated one CAP success so far-garnering the attention of the Democratic front runner by highlighting the importance of national security issues. Clinton told a capacity audience in the glass-walled conference room that the government needed to rebuild the American military. "Four years after the start of the war, our troops are stretched to the breaking point," she said, citing new CAP research about Army readiness levels.
Clinton also called for a new GI Bill of Rights, professing, "I believe if you serve your country, your country should serve you."
In many ways, the setting and the speaker reflect the newer face of liberalism-one savvy enough to sidestep the public-relations gaffes of the past. Gone are John Kerry's jabs at the military and Sen. Dick Durbin's comparison of U.S. policy to Nazi Germany's. Instead, only declarations of support: "[W]hen American soldiers are in harm's way, we are all at risk," Clinton told the CAP crowd. CAP scholars campaign for Iraq withdrawal with the Stars and Stripes proudly mounted behind the podium and billowing in the official think-tank logo.
And lest any Christians in the crowd confuse liberalism with secularism, the packets of national security research compiled for Clinton's visit contain an editorial titled, "Real threat to Christianity drags on in Iraq." Co-authored by John Podesta, the article notes that "militant gangs and terrorist groups [in Iraq] target Christians for assault, murder, rape and kidnapping."
Who bears the responsibility for such violence? Podesta's answer is clear: "[A]n American president . . . has stood by and watched the destruction of some of the world's oldest Christian communities."
Asked whether CAP consciously attempts to reclaim particular political issues, Korb admitted, "I think it's no accident that we've emphasized national security." His own "Strategic Redeployment" policy report, first published in September 2005, became the framework for Democratic proposals to withdraw from Iraq.
Still, Korb insists that CAP does not seek to redefine progressive politics, but "to make people aware of what it really is." A pie chart on the CAP website helpfully lists the symptoms of progressivism for the benefit of the politically curious. A progressive is innovative, optimistic, patriotic. A progressive is not naïve, selfish, xenophobic.
But glossy graphics aside, Korb had it right-core liberal themes do remain constant at the Center for American Progress. Recent CAP events include "Reproductive Rights are Human Rights," the celebration of a Colombian court decision to strike down an abortion ban as a violation of international human rights. The CAP listserv also announced "The Politics of Jesus," featuring Obery Hendricks, a professor at New York Theological Seminary who proclaims Jesus as a political and economic revolutionary.
Paradoxically, the recent political and electoral success of the Democratic Party may pose the single greatest threat to the long-term goals of CAP and the Alliance. Conservative correspondent Byron York, author of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy, speculates that the 2006 midterm elections may "quiet some of the intense passions that gave rise to this movement in the first place."
"Whether [the movement] can continue to grow as quickly in the future as it has in the last couple years is the question we all want to see answered," York said.
So the dilemma for CAP and its Alliance donors is whether the "think tank on steroids" will sustain long-term growth-or, in the end, suffer the side effects of political impotence.