For Democrats suffering from Scarecrow Syndrome (“if we only had a brain”), John Podesta, the man behind the curtain at the Center for American Progress, thinks he has the cure: a $10-million-a-year think tank now taking shape in Washington. In a city heavy with well-funded right-wing think tanks (Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Hudson Institute, Federalist Society), the center is designed to provide some ballast for the other side. Starting in the 1970s, the conservative tanks have forged the ideas that built Fortress GOP. Podesta believes that what the Democrats need to “balance the national debate” is a Heritage Foundation of their own. Finally, the Democratic Party will have a “brain.”
As yet barely known outside policy-wonk circles in Washington, within that world Podesta’s center had generated lots of buzz even before it opened its doors last fall. Its arrival has been welcomed–eagerly, cautiously or jealously, depending on who’s doing the welcoming–by the liberal and progressive Washington community. All agree that, at the very least, the center can add energy and ideas to the overall anti-Bush effort in 2004. But both Podesta’s and the center’s close ties to the Clintons, and their desire to appeal to Democrats across the political spectrum, have many people asking how much the center will accomplish in the end.
Podesta, a lawyer and twenty-five-year Washington veteran who worked for the Justice Department, for ACTION (the federal volunteer agency) and on Capitol Hill, is best known as President Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff. Now, backed by a small group of wealthy donors, Podesta is assembling a team of former Clinton officials, Capitol Hill veterans and refugees from other liberal think tanks. Thirty-five-strong and growing (around Washington, it seems like nearly everyone with liberal credentials has sent a résumé to Podesta), the center also includes a phalanx of big-think “fellows,” including Ruy Teixeira, Gene Sperling, Matt Miller and The Nation‘s Eric Alterman. Podesta’s second-in-command is Morton Halperin, the longtime national security and civil liberties activist, while Laura Nichols, a former top aide to Representative Dick Gephardt, oversees a stable of media-relations experts. The center already boasts a significant web presence (www.centerforamericanprogress.org), and its daily Progress Report, compiled by former Capitol Hill aide David Sirota and delivered electronically to 28,000 subscribers, is a political junkie’s “Bush Watch.”
Podesta, who has gotten people up and running on white papers and policy initiatives on everything from homeland security to public education, relishes comparisons between his center and Heritage. “I’m a policy wonk at heart,” he says. In its first few months, the center has organized a two-day conference on national security, issued a detailed critique of President Bush’s record on antiterrorism and civil liberties, prepared a thoughtful analysis of the just-passed Medicare prescription drug bill and sponsored a foreign policy address by Senator Edward Kennedy.
Especially anticipated is the center’s much-touted talent for War Room-style counterpunch and its media team’s ability to wage hand-to-hand combat against conservatives on TV gabfests, talk-radio and the op-ed pages of the daily papers. Heritage has won deserved envy and awe on the left for its ability not only to generate ideas but to place them squarely at the center of public attention–in the media, on Capitol Hill and among the capital’s intelligentsia. At Podesta’s center, a nine-person communications staff, led by Debbie Berger, a former booker for CNN’s Crossfire, is busy collecting and indexing liberal talking heads and getting them placed on talk shows and interviewed by print reporters. Center staff and fellows have written more than a dozen op-eds and made more than 200 television and radio appearances in six months, and Nichols and Berger plan to organize a media-training program. Already, talk-show bookers around town are saying that the center is a handy place to go. “For conservatives, we can call Heritage or AEI,” said one. “Now we have a place to get liberals.” And the center–which has a lobbying arm in formation–says it will not shy from plunging directly into legislative battles in Congress.