The Democrats are ramping up efforts to
launch a liberal think tank in September that they say
will give their party the unified message it lacked
in 2002 and counter the well-funded network of conservative
John Podesta, who served as White House
chief of staff during the Clinton administration, is
spearheading the project and consulting with Democratic
leaders on Capitol Hill.
The think tank, known for now as the American
Majority Institute, will have an annual operating budget
of at least $10 million, a sum that would immediately
make it the largest Democratic think tank in town.
By comparison, the Progressive Policy
Institute, the think tank affiliated with the centrist
Democratic Leadership Council, has an annual operating
budget of around $3 million.
Key Democrats attribute Republican control
of the White House and both branches of Congress in
part to their party’s lack of an effective mechanism
for disseminating liberal ideas to the public and the
media. They say such wealthy conservative groups as
the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise
Institute (AEI) have helped Republicans gain the upper
hand in the battle over ideas.
“Certainly right now the conservative
right does a much better job of feeding the media beast
facts and arguments that make their case,” said
Joe Lockhart, a Democratic consultant who served as
White House spokesman in the Clinton administration.
“On the progressive side of the aisle, we’ve
been asleep at the wheel.”
“This will be part of the push-back
effort,” he added, referring to the American Majority
Indicating the importance of the project,
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) convened
a meeting of leading Senate Democrats to review and
discuss it shortly before the Memorial Day recess.
“We have to begin building a structure
similar to that which the Republicans have funded for
many years,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.),
chairman of the Democratic Policy Conference. “We’re
trying to begin that process, but it’s slow. We
don’t have the same easy funding sources that
the Republicans have had.”
The American Majority Institute moved
into new offices at 15th and H Streets N.W. this week
and has already filled some key slots. Podesta will
serve as president; Laura Nichols, who worked as communications
director for former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt
(D-Mo.), will be senior vice president; Sarah Wartell,
who served as chief of staff for the National Economic
Council in the Clinton administration, will be the chief
operating officer; and Neera Tanden, former policy director
and deputy campaign manager for Sen. Hillary Clinton
(D-N.Y.), will oversee domestic policy.
Organizers will spend the summer raising money and hiring
more staff before the formal launch in September.
Nichols said the institute will be a think
tank “with a muscular communications component
“There are a number of excellent
policy think tanks on the progressive side, but what
they’re lacking is a serious marketing and communications
component,” she said.
Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), chairman of
the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said many
in his party think liberal think tanks devoted to narrow
topics need to be better organized.
“It’s not a holistic view,”
he said. “There’s a belief that you need
something central, you need to be able to partner with
other [groups] that might do specific work and pull
those things together.”
Some Democratic strategists view the new
think tank as a vehicle for crafting a unified message,
something the party struggled to find before last year’s
election, when it lost control of the Senate and six
seats in the House.
“It would serve as a communications
hub for a lot of the policy ideas people have,”
said a strategist familiar with the American Majority
Institute. “It would be a place where people are
brought together to hash out policy in a lot of different
Although some conservatives view the Brookings
Institution — one of the largest policy think
tanks in Washington, with an annual operating budget
of around $36 billion — as left-leaning, many
Democrats complain that it is too independent, academic
and aloof to give their party much of a boost.
Indeed, Brookings describes itself as
a “nonpartisan organization devoted to research,
analysis, education and publication focused on public
By contrast, the Heritage Foundation,
which has an annual operating budget of around $30 million,
states its mission unambiguously: “To formulate
and promote conservative public policies based on the
principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual
freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national
Republicans can rely on a slew of other
well-funded conservative think tanks, such as the AEI
(annual expenses: about $16 million), the Hudson Institute
(annual budget: about $7 million), and the Cato Institute
(annual budget: about $15 million).
Democrats have fewer allies, with less
money. The Center on Budget & Policy Priorities
has an annual budget of around $8 million; the Economic
Policy Institute has a budget close to $5 million.
The idea of creating a new Democratic
think tank gained momentum when Steve Kirsch, the billionaire
founder of the Internet search engine Infoseek, began
“What happened is I started talking
to various people in Washington saying, ‘We need
a Heritage Foundation for the left.’” said
Soon after, a committee was set up to
find someone to put the think tank together.“John Podesta was on virtually everybody’s
shortlist,” Kirsch said.
However, Democrats say they realize it
will take some time to build a policy network that can
match conservative groups.
“The Heritage Foundation, the Cato
Institute and other conservative think tanks have been
at this for 40 years since [former Senator Barry] Goldwater
[R-Ariz.] lost in 1964,” said Steve Grossman,
a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Grossman said conservatives have achieved
“a gradual dominance of think tanks, magazines,
talk radio, and TV.”
“The intellectual capital for that
[dominance has been fueled by] … what think tanks
have been pouring out in thoughtful pieces that have
been gradually accepted by other people,” he said.
“I think this is part of the push-back.”
© 2003 The Hill