In an Age of Policy Boldness, Think Tanks Have Become Timid

In an Age of Policy Boldness, Think Tanks Have Become Timid

In an Age of Policy Boldness, Think Tanks Have Become Timid

The disconnect between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and the think tank world could pose a problem if one of them gets elected president.


By now, the shape of the Democratic Party’s presidential primary is clear: Joe Biden remains the front-runner, but his lead is narrowing as his campaign runs on the fumes of nostalgia while Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren nip at his heels. Biden’s campaign is idiosyncratically personal, emphasizing the former vice president’s friendship with Barack Obama. Sanders and Warren, by contrast, have been running the most ideas-fueled campaigns in living memory.

Whoever wins the nomination, Sanders and Warren are now undeniably the pacesetters for the party. Responding to a Democratic electorate that has been radicalized by Donald Trump and is still smarting from the 2008 recession, Warren and Sanders have yanked the conversation—and the party—sharply to the left. The upshot has been a Democratic Party that is more willing to argue over radical ideas than any other time since the days of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Nor are Sanders and Warren alone. Politicians often deemed moderate such as Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris have joined the policy arms race, with candidates trying to top one another with their competing plans to remake America. Suddenly the political conversation is dominated by ideas like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, student debt relief, free public college, statehood for DC and Puerto Rico, and even Supreme Court expansion. It’s telling that Warren has become a leading contender with the catchphrase “I have a plan for that.” Democratic voters seem positively hungry for plans.

Yet the new hunger for policies hasn’t been a boon to the outfits that traditionally provide Democratic candidates with their ideas. With a few exceptions, liberal and centrist think tanks such as the Center for American Progress (CAP), New America, the Brookings Institution, Demos, and the Roosevelt Institute have had little impact on the campaign season. And when these influential think tanks have made nods at the big policy debates within the Democratic Party, they’ve often done so in the spirit of hold-your-horses caution, with quibbles about feasibility, or by struggling to play catch-up with campaign proposals.

If the 2019 Democratic Party has become caught up in a dizzying profusion of new ideas and possibilities, the think tanks have remained the wallflowers at the dance, grumpily standing in the corner, staring at their feet.

“Is the Green New Deal biting off too much?” asked a Brookings podcast. CAP’s Medicare Extra plan is clearly meant to be a moderate alternative to Sanders’s Medicare for All bill. Meanwhile, Demos warned that canceling all student debt “would increase the wealth gap between white and black households.”

Marshall Steinbaum, an economist who teaches at the University of Utah and was previously employed by the Roosevelt Institute, has written a paper that directly refutes this claim. He found that student debt relief was not racially or economically regressive and actually reduced racial wealth inequality. Beyond his specific critique of one bit of policy, he has a larger quarrel with what he sees as the timidity of contemporary think tanks at a time when policy boldness is urgently needed.

“On the one hand, you have robust policy debate as part of the 2020 Democratic primary nomination campaign. [Yet] there is almost total disjunction between those things and the…progressive policy-making apparatus that you…imagine would staff a Democratic presidential administration,” Steinbaum told me.

Mark Schmitt, the director of the political reform program at New America, is more muted but acknowledged that the big think tanks haven’t kept pace with the political conversation. “There’s a lot of think-tanky gentle criticism of the free college and student loan forgiveness ideas. Some of the think tanks have aligned on Medicare for Everyone Who Wants It rather than Medicare for All,” he observed. “The think tanks aren’t out ahead of the candidates in the way you’d expect them to be.”

Matt Bruenig runs a crowdfunded democratic socialist think tank called the People’s Policy Project, which Steinbaum and Schmitt praise for its innovative proposals—some of which appear to have been picked up by the Sanders campaign. A cornerstone of Sanders’s version of the Green New Deal is using existing government companies such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Power Marketing Administrations to produce renewable energy, an idea supported by the PPP.

Like Steinbaum and Schmitt, Bruenig said the big think tanks are mostly sitting out the far-reaching policy debates of the moment. “If there is a new thing coming, it’s got legs, and it’s popular, usually you try and get your stuff under that heading,” Bruenig said. “You haven’t really seen that. It’s a little bit strange.”

The Tax Policy Center has praised proposals from Cory Booker and Harris. The Roosevelt Institute backed Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act, which would bring workers into corporate boardrooms, including the idea of reserving 40 percent of corporate board seats for workers. (In Europe, where codetermination has a longer history, workers usually get half the seats at the table.) The Roosevelt Institute has pioneered a structuralist critique of corporate power that has wide resonance. It also houses the Great Democracy Initiative, which can be seen as a storehouse of Warren-friendly ideas. Sanders gets some of his sharpest talking points about inequality from the Institute for Policy Studies, a more radical outfit that is usually ignored by the mainstream of the Democratic Party.

Still, none of these candidates are as close to big think tanks as Obama and Hillary Clinton were. When it seemed Clinton was heading to victory in 2016, it was common to speak of CAP’s Neera Tanden as the next White House chief of staff. It’s unclear that Tanden—or any other think tank head—has the ear of candidates in 2019 in quite the same way.

“CAP was the Democratic Party’s brain from its founding in 2003 until 2016,” said Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute. “If you wanted to get something heard on the Hill or you wanted to get it heard in the Obama White House, you would do it through CAP.” Those organizations no longer play so central a role. “What has happened is that it’s fragmented. You’ve seen this breakdown of a kind of a consensus.”

The disconnect between the most adventurous candidates for the Democratic nomination and the think tank world could pose a real problem if, as seems quite possible, Sanders or Warren becomes president. Although think tanks are nongovernmental organizations, they’ve been integral to the running of the American state since at least Woodrow Wilson’s administration. Think tanks provided essential road maps for almost all modern presidents with a transformative legacy, be it Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson, Ronald Reagan, or Obama. These leaders not only took policy ideas from think tanks; they also recruited key staffers.

If Democratic think tanks remain out of sync with the nominee’s policy preferences, this could hobble a future administration. The current disconnect also raises some pressing questions: Why are think tanks keeping their distance from the rambunctious debates in the run-up to the Democratic primaries? Is the reliance on big donors keeping think tanks from moving left?

Like the Democratic Party as a whole, the major think tanks remain haunted by the divisive 2016 primary battle between Clinton and Sanders. Steinbaum said he believes that these think tanks came to regret their closeness to Clinton, since it fed divisions in their organizations and in the Democratic Party. “Think tanks were on Team Clinton in 2016 and in retrospect think that was a big problem,” he told me. “The reaction to that has been ‘In 2020 we will not pick sides, no matter what.’”

Schmitt suggested that simply for pragmatic reasons, the high-profile think tanks don’t want to align themselves with any candidate as closely as they did with Clinton. “Whoever is going to be the president, you need to keep that open line that you don’t have if you stake yourself out,” he said.

This political timidity goes hand in hand with the caution that Schmitt sees among funders, notably big foundations. “Think tanks want to be ahead of the curve, thinking about what’s the next issue, what we should be doing,” he told me. “Funding often makes it difficult to do that…. Decent, well-meaning foundations are slow-moving.” His adage is that “foundations are two years behind, so the funding tends to be two years behind an issue.” Foundations, according to him, started paying for research into financialization and Wall Street regulations only in 2010, two years after the crash of 2008—and four years after the policies would have done the most good.

A more cynical interpretation is that big donors aren’t just slow but actively block good policy.

Though the phrase “think tank” was coined in 1958 and took its current connotation in the 1960s, the institutions it describes date back to the early 20th century, a period when, as now, America was grappling with runaway inequality and a ruthless, unchecked capitalism. Early think tanks (such as Brookings, which traces its roots to 1916) were geared toward overcoming partisan and class divides by offering putatively disinterested expert analysis.

This ideal of think tanks as unbiased institutions never described reality—and became especially far from the mark during the 1970s, when the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Heritage Foundation became the shock troops of the American right, laying the groundwork for the Reagan revolution. The liberal think tanks that emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s (CAP, New America, Demos) modeled themselves in part on the ideological think tanks of the right, hoping to fill the same agenda-setting role for Democrats that AEI and Heritage have for Republicans.

But as happens so often in America, the left only imperfectly mirrored the right: The wealthy funders on the right were all aboard for an extremist agenda, happy to fund nonsensical nostrums like supply-side economics, Star Wars missile defense, and climate change denial. By contrast, liberal donors have been closer to the political center and prefer to fund think tanks that work toward producing consensus. In that sense, liberal think tanks still adhere to the spirit of the original think tanks—wary of partisanship and eager for policies that can win bipartisan support.

“In order to qualify yourself for that kind of foundation money, you have to not ruffle feathers,” Steinbaum said. He cited the Economic Security Project, co-chaired by Facebook founder Chris Hughes. According to Steinbaum, that initiative has gotten think tanks talking about the caretaker earned income tax credit, which he describes as “total wonkish meaninglessness.” He said he fears that think tanks, reliant on donor dollars, are too prone to esoteric schemes that please the superrich but have no political constituency.

Think tanks “have this delicate balance they have to play between donors, stakeholders, and electeds,” Bruenig said. “That tends to make it hard for them to go too far out on a limb.” That’s also, he argued, why they are wary of “anything that requires a significant tax. Donors like that.”

Stoller bumped up against the limits of donor tolerance in 2017 at Open Markets, which at that time was under the umbrella of New America. But when Barry Lynn, who started Open Markets, praised the European Union for penalizing Google, New America—which had received more than $21 million from Google executive Eric Schmidt—cut its ties to the project. According to The New York Times, Lynn was told that “the time has come for Open Markets and New America to part ways.” Open Markets now operates as an independent entity and has helped shape the anti-monopoly tech policies of Warren and other candidates.

But if donors veto ambitious new programs, will that hamper a future Democratic president, especially Sanders or Warren? These institutions have become even more important since the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich gutted congressional staffing. As Bruce Bartlett, a policy adviser for Reagan and George H.W. Bush, wrote for The New York Times in 2011, “Mr. Gingrich did everything in his power to dismantle Congressional institutions that employed people with the knowledge, training and experience to know a harebrained idea when they saw it. When he became speaker in 1995, Mr. Gingrich moved quickly to slash the budgets and staff of the House committees, which employed thousands of professionals with long and deep institutional memories.” A consequence of his slash-and-burn policies was that politicians of both parties had to rely ever more on the expertise of think tanks.

“One of the key choices that [Nancy] Pelosi made in 2006 when [Democrats] won the House again is she did not [restore] that institutional structure, she did not staff up the committees, she did not build out internal think tanks,” Stoller said. “Instead she mimicked the Gingrich model in having these external think tanks funded by foundations, philanthropy, and corporate interests. One of the reasons why Congress is so weak is that they don’t have any internal thinking capacity.”

What’s true of Congress is also true of the presidency: George W. Bush and Obama both leaned on think tanks to staff their White Houses. The Iraq War was in many ways the brainchild of AEI. Trump, by contrast, had some insiders worried his administration could cause the death of think tanks, though he has since garnered the support of the Heritage Foundation. He has had to let key positions go unfilled—or rely on a staff that disagrees with him.

Might Warren or Sanders face similar obstacles? “If Warren entered the Oval Office and proposed whatever agenda that she proposed on the campaign trail and was not able to enact it, that would not be any skin off the backs of those organizations because they’re not bought into that agenda,” Steinbaum speculated. “That’s very dangerous, I would say.”

Schmitt said he is less worried, since none of the likely Democratic nominees share Trump’s contempt for policy-making. But Schmitt wondered if large think tanks have outlived their usefulness. “I think it’s a real question whether that large, adaptable institutional structure modeled on AEI or Brookings is actually the best way to get the best work out of people,” he said. It could be that large think tanks are not nimble enough to respond to current politics.

Many politicians are aware of the problem and are searching for alternatives.

Warren, a former professor who is arguably the most intellectually adventurous of the candidates, forages ideas from academic sources well outside the brand-name think tanks. As Politico noted in June, “Leafing through Warren’s plans posted on Medium, voters will find links to obscure academic literature from places like the Düsseldorf Institute for Competition Economics, the Upjohn Institute, the Journal of Applied Business and Economics, and the American Journal of Sociology.” These heterodox sources speak not just to her voracious curiosity and wide network in academia but also to the fact that the usual suspects weren’t able to supply her with the far-reaching plans she needs. As Obama adviser Austan Goolsbee told Politico, Warren’s team has “reached out for advice from some important academics that are not really from the standard DC policy circuit.”

“It’s not just a story of think tanks holding back or being limited,” Schmitt said. It’s really a story—probably driven as much by Warren as by anybody—of candidates being much more ambitious about policy than I’ve ever seen.”

As Stoller pointed out, new members of Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Katie Porter have shown a similar magpie willingness to build their own nest of ideas from unconventional sources. “What’s interesting about AOC and Katie Porter and a couple of the others is that they look at politics and say the point of politics is to implement policy,” he said. “And to do that, we have to have knowledge and credibility. They look at politics as a contest over power but also as a contest to implement and learn empirically driven policy choices. They are not afraid to develop those policies from inside government.”

If Warren or Sanders becomes the Democratic presidential nominee and possibly the president, the traditional left-of-center think tanks will face an existential choice. They can either embrace irrelevance, or they can shift to accommodate the new direction of the party. If the big think tanks remain committed to becoming irrelevant, then politicians have no choice but to become their own think tanks.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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