An Idea Factory for the Democrats

An Idea Factory for the Democrats

The Center for American Progress was conceived as the Democratic answer to the Heritage Foundation…


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 (, 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.

The idea for the center began with discussions in 2002 between Halperin and George Soros, the billionaire investor. Soros, whose money has jump-started a panoply of anti-Bush political organizations, wanted to help create an institution that would be big enough, and well funded enough, to get off the ground right away and have an impact. Halperin, who heads the Washington office of Soros’s Open Society Institute, brought Podesta into the discussion, and beginning in late 2002 Halperin and Podesta circulated a series of papers to funders. At the end of 2002 a California banker and backer of human rights causes named Herb Sandler came knocking on Podesta’s door. He’d heard about the Halperin-Podesta venture from Aryeh Neier, former head of Human Rights Watch, who’d worked with Soros (Neier currently serves on the board of directors of the Center for American Progress). How much of the $30-35 million, three-year funding raised for the center comes from Sandler isn’t clear, but it’s probably in the range of two-thirds, since Soros committed only $3 million to the project. Podesta has a third major funder, but he won’t disclose who it is, and seems overly cautious in talking about his backers. Though he admits that corporate funding can influence the outcomes of think tanks and politicians alike, he isn’t ruling out getting money from corporate America or, for that matter, from labor. But so far the center hasn’t gotten either.

“Our assumption was that you had to be at scale,” Podesta says, explaining why he believes a big budget is essential. “You had to grow an operation that was pretty big, fast.” With the center budgeted at $10 million for 2004, Podesta says he’d like to be at the $15-20-million-a-year level soon. The center is already in the big leagues of Washington think tanks, eclipsing older centrist-to-left groups like the DLC’s Progressive Policy Institute ($2.4 million), the Economic Policy Institute ($5 million), the Campaign for America’s Future ($4 million), the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ($8 million) and the Institute for Policy Studies ($2.4 million). (Says an envious denizen of a rival tank, “It’s a lot easier to raise money when you’ve got Robert Rubin and Hillary Clinton helping you with your fundraising.”) And while it doesn’t quite put the center into the ballpark with Heritage (now a $33-million-a-year shop) financially, at least it’s in the same league.

For all the comparisons with Heritage, however, and despite the desire among many Democrats for a liberal idea factory, it’s possible both to overstate the importance of Heritage and to exaggerate the Democrats’ need for so-called “new ideas.” In the past (say, with the arrival of the Democratic Leadership Council), talking about new ideas was a not so covert way of saying that the “old” Democratic ideas were passé. “Often when people say we need new ideas, they really mean they’re looking for centrist ideas, and they dress them up to look new,” says Max Sawicky, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. Adds Jeff Faux, an economist and former head of EPI, “There does seem to be, in the Democratic Party, the constant search for the New Idea, when the fundamental problem is that there are plenty of ideas we haven’t succeeded in implementing yet.” Donna Brazile, the organizer who managed Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, wishes Podesta well. But, she says, “the last thing we need is fifteen-page papers on this and that. What people want to hear is that Democrats are fighting for something, that they stand for something, that they have convictions. It’s not a lack of ideas.” Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, she points out, fit on a single page.

And while the Heritage Foundation is important, its wonks didn’t generate the radical decline in unionism, the growth of the Christian evangelical movement, the alienation of white working-class males from progressive causes, the race-based Southern strategy that locked up the former Confederacy for the GOP, the middle-class tax-revolt movement and other seismic shifts that propelled the post-1970s realignment in US politics. Nor did Heritage corrupt the Democratic Party, addicting it to corporate money and pulling it to the right. The Democrats, thanks to the DLC and politicians like Bill Clinton, did that all by themselves.

In looking at Podesta’s center, there’s no escaping the imprint of the Clintons. It’s not completely wrong to see it as a shadow government, a kind of Clinton White-House-in-exile–or a White House staff in readiness for President Hillary Clinton. Among senior staff and fellows at the center are several former Clinton-era officials, including Robert Boorstin, who was Clinton’s national security speechwriter; Gene Sperling, who headed Clinton’s National Economic Council and who is now affiliated with the DLC; and Matt Miller, senior adviser to Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget. The center’s first director of domestic policy was Neera Tanden, an aide to Senator Clinton, who has since returned to work for Hillary. And the center’s kickoff conference on national security in October, co-organized with The American Prospect and the Century Foundation, looked like a Clinton reunion, featuring Robert Rubin, Clinton’s Treasury Secretary; William Perry, his Defense Secretary; Sandy Berger, his National Security Adviser; Richard Holbrooke and Susan Rice, both Clinton-era Assistant Secretaries of State; Rodney Slater, his Transportation Secretary; and Carol Browner, his EPA Administrator, who serves on the center’s board of directors.

“We’ve had the challenge of filling a void on our side of the ledger for a long time, while the other side created an infrastructure that has come to dominate political discourse,” says Hillary Clinton, who was also there. “The center is a welcome effort to fill that void.”

Though the center is often touted as the answer to a decades-old longing by Democrats to have a think tank of their own, in fact Podesta seems to see it as reconstituting a function that was provided by Clinton’s White House. “The need for a progressive counterpart [to the Heritage Foundation et al.] was less obvious when a more progressive President occupied the White House,” says a fundraising prospectus circulated privately in early 2003. “The vast resources of the executive were available to develop new policy initiatives.” That doesn’t sound like someone arguing that the Democrats have lacked good, new ideas for thirty years–only since January 2001, when Clinton wasn’t there any longer to hand them out. Indeed, much of the left spent the 1990s lulled by the charismatic power of a single politician whose skills were such that it didn’t seem necessary to organize, amass research and data, hammer out a program and then communicate the hell out of it–Bill was doing that, even if he often got mesmerized by someone like Dick Morris and came up with welfare reform or bombing Sudan or signing the Defense of Marriage Act or backing the World Trade Organization and NAFTA.

Podesta enjoys using the word “liberal” to describe the center, and frequently calls it “progressive.” He also calls it “center-left.” Thus muddled together, these terms lose their meaning, and it’s quickly apparent in talking to Podesta that in the battle between the Democratic Party’s left and right he’s trying not to take sides. (So attached to centrism are Podesta & Co. that they refuse to use the easily pronounceable acronym “CAP” for the Center for American Progress, preferring to call it “the center.” Exactly.) Says John Cavanagh, executive director of the Institute for Policy Studies, “It’s an attempt to redefine liberalism as Clintonism.”

But that means the center is not really a political analogue of Heritage, which, along with the rest of the conservative revolutionaries, reserved its bitterest bile for squishy, middle-of-the-road Republicans of the Ford-Rockefeller variety. It’s laughable to think that the conservatives would have succeeded had their funders–Coors, Scaife et al.–doled out millions to Gerald Ford, Everett Dirksen and Howard Baker. While the center is casting a broad net, in no sense is it seeking revolutionary change. It’s a truth not lost on Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and one of the New Right’s most successful organizers. All Podesta wants to do, says Norquist, is pull the country back to the Clinton era. It’s as if the conservatives had spent the late 1970s and early ’80s pining for the Ford Administration. “Podesta,” says Norquist, “is arguing for a restoration, but he’s acting like he’s organizing a revolution.”

Sitting in his office, just a couple of blocks from his old digs at the White House, I asked Podesta about the tug of war between, say, the DLC, which has spent nearly two decades dragging the party to the right, and the Campaign for America’s Future, founded in the 1990s to yank the party back in the other direction–toward its base in organized labor, minorities and the working class. “We spend an enormous amount of money in the fight between the right and the left of the party, in the fight between the Campaign for America’s Future and the DLC, without concentrating on the real fight,” he says. “It’s an untested assumption of mine that you can represent the center-left, that you can have an institution and a platform that can represent both sides.”

That, of course, was precisely Bill Clinton’s genius, and his curse.

Given its pedigree, it’s fair to wonder whether the Big Ideas that the center comes up with will look less revolutionary than incremental, sort of like the laundry list of midsize ideas that used to fill a Clinton State of the Union speech. In an effort to find out, I pointed out to Podesta that Heritage backed many ideas that were once considered viable only by wild-eyed radicals but that became part of George W. Bush’s campaign platform, among them dismantling public education through vouchers and charter schools, the privatization of Social Security and Medicare, radical tax reform, a huge military buildup and a missile defense system. I asked: Can you name a few such ideas, now considered far out of the mainstream (to the left) that your center can make palatable and politically viable in the future?

“You’re asking me to do in a few months what Heritage has been doing for decades,” Podesta said.

OK, so let me suggest one, I responded. What about public financing of elections, which actually passed Congress in 1992, only to be vetoed by Bush I. Before answering, Podesta paused–a long, long pause. “It’s, uh, I think…uhh, I think it has some value. But political money is a little like water on a hill. It always finds a way to flow.” I took that to mean that public financing is not an idea that the center is going to be looking at anytime soon.

I asked Podesta to suggest a similar idea, and he started talking about technology and a new approach toward containing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons–important, perhaps, in a wonkish kind of way, but not exactly a red-meat idea for the masses.

So I tried again: What about single-payer healthcare? Medicare for all? “Nothing should be off the table,” he said. “But it’s probably something we’re going to have to build from the bottom up, in a more incremental approach. Hillary tried to do the whole thing at once, and it didn’t work. And even she ended up with modified single-payer.” I looked skeptical. “It wasn’t real single-payer, right?” he asked. No, it wasn’t. It was HMO-dominated managed competition, a plan cooked up by the insurance industry–nearly the opposite of single-payer.

Tax policy? On this one, the center has potential. Podesta said that Bush & Co. are trying to shift the tax burden step by step from corporations and the rich onto wage earners, and that Democrats are trapped into dealing with tax cuts on terms set by the President–which since the 1980s has meant Democrats have had to come out for raising taxes. “I want to see a taxation system that’s fair, and that can sustain our progressive form of government,” he said. Along with his still-expanding team of political economists, he would like to come up with a more sweeping plan to restructure the entire tax system.

In two other important areas, Podesta’s center is likely to ruffle feathers on the left. The first is national security. Bob Boorstin, whose portfolio at the center is defense, said, “On the Howard Dean/Sam Nunn scale, we’re on the Sam Nunn end,” managing at once to insult the party’s front-runner at the time and bind himself to the former senator from Georgia, a Dixiecrat cold war hawk who never met a military program he didn’t like. Boorstin said that on national security Americans trust Republicans over Democrats by a gap of 35 percentage points. “My job is to take the thirty-five-point gap and shrink it, so that we’re viewed as credible again,” he said. “It’s vital that we Democrats demonstrate through our ideas that we are not a bunch of wimps.” The bloated military budget, now $400 billion and counting, is fine with Podesta; a paper he co-wrote says: “Democrats should support sustaining the increased military funding level for [the Defense Department] that has occurred since 9/11. Funding DOD at this higher level will keep the military second to none, now and in the future.”

The second problem area is trade. Podesta, like Clinton, is a staunch advocate of free trade, NAFTA et al., which he calls “open markets.” Podesta points to efforts by Clinton to prohibit child labor and to work labor standards and environmental protection into trade agreements, but he acknowledges that it will be difficult to find a policy that will be acceptable both to Wall Street and to the AFL-CIO. “If you start by thinking about how to sell it to John Sweeney and to Sandy Weill, you’re in trouble,” he says. “I don’t think we can get away with it.”

Criticism of Podesta’s new venture by Democrats is muted. Both left and moderate Democrats, including those from other think tanks, say nice things about the center for attribution, keeping more skeptical comments off the record. From the left, the tenor of the skepticism is captured by Jeff Faux. “The question is, Will there be any populist bite to this crowd?” says Faux. “The question I have is whether this starts the process too close to the center. The country has moved to the right. You get it back not by adding more weight to the center, but to the left.” Yet there’s a willingness to welcome Podesta’s center because of the liberals’ popular front against Bush/Cheney 2004. “The more the merrier,” says Will Marshall, who heads the DLC’s PPI. Although the center itself won’t engage in electoral politics, it will engage Bushism on several fronts, helping to develop position papers that Democratic candidates can use, highlighting Bush’s failures in foreign and domestic policy and getting articulate critics of Bush on TV and radio.

But beating Bush is one thing; forging a “center-left” policy consensus is another. Despite Podesta’s desire to be all things to all Democrats, the muted criticism of his center so far will grow from off-the-record murmurings to frontal assaults from both sides of the Democratic divide as he is forced to take sides in policy debates on national security, deficit spending, trade, entitlements and other tough issues. Bill Clinton managed to walk that tightrope for eight years, mostly with success; but it remains to be seen whether or not Podesta will fall off.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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