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Righting the left

Politics | Liberal donors pour tens of millions of dollars into upstart competitors for influential conservative think tanks

Issue: "Jerry Falwell," May 26, 2007

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.

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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.

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