New Dem think tank tackles conservative politics, media

Silicon Valley progressives, a major labor union and a centrist Democratic organization have joined forces to fund a startup think tank that focuses on politics, not policy.

The New Politics Institute (NPI), unlike conventional think tanks that churn out white papers and policy briefs, will work to counter “[White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl] Rove and [RNC Chairman Ken] Mehlman on the other side,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, formerly the New Democrat Network but now known just by its initials.

“We still have a long way to go in battling them in the way they are battling us,” said Rosenberg, who unsuccessfully ran to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee earlier this year.

NPI will be funded by venture capitalist Andy Rappaport and his wife, Deborah, as well as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), to the tune of $1.5 million to $2 million annually, and will be under the umbrella of NDN. The union will provide “considerable resources,” NDN spokesman Guillermo Meneses said.

Acknowledging their internal ideological differences, the group is putting a high premium on winning at the polls and is willing to put aside any potential policy disputes to return the Democrats to power, Deborah Rappaport said.

“A New Democrat centrist means a Democrat who can win an election,” said Joe Trippi, formerly of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign and a key player in this new venture.

With offices in both Washington and the San Francisco Bay area of California, the think tank will rely on a network of fellows to manufacture and disseminate its political products. Part of NPI will be incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c)(4) and other elements will be free to engage in campaign activity as a 527, Rosenberg said in a conference call with reporters.

Deborah Rappaport noted that NPI is a separate venture from Rob Stein’s Democracy Alliance, which is planning to seed a garden of progressive think tanks with money raised from the Phoenix Group, a collection of liberal investors that includes George Soros. The Rappaports are not members of the Phoenix Group and have their own “investment schedule,” she said.

In addition to its support from SEIU and the Rappaports, NPI has enlisted the help of Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of the popular liberal blog dailykos.com, as well as Trippi, to find innovative ways to deliver their ideas in a changing media landscape.

Pollsters Sergio Bendixen and Mark Penn, SEIU official Gina Glantz and Theo Yedinsky, formerly of the Kerry campaign and currently with NDN, will all play a role in the new startup.

Zuniga was dismissive of the existing progressive thinks tanks’ capacity to change the debate or influence elections in the Democrats’ favor. “Policy think tanks are pretty useless,” he said, without naming any in particular.

“All the great policy white papers aren’t going to do any good,” he added. NPI will be focused on “building a Democratic Party that is focused on winning.”

In a minor disagreement with Zuniga, Rosenberg said that NPI would work in concert with groups like the Public Policy Institute and other progressive think tanks, insisting that that such like-minded organizations would draw on their separate expertise to develop and deliver progressive ideology.

Rosenberg said NPI would focus on three specific themes: the ascendancy of the conservative movement, demographic trends and the demise of the traditional broadcast media.

“Each of these three trends is making the practice of progressive politics very different in this century than the one that came before,” Rosenberg said. “NPI has been established to help progressives of all stripes master the challenges of 21st century politics.”

Rosenberg said that Democrats need to be prepared to compete in a media environment where the 30-second political ad is no longer relevant and could be eclipsed by new forms of political communication.

Drawing on the model of NDN’s Hispanic project in the last election, NPI will continue to focus on engaging Hispanic voters and educating them on the records of both parties and will use that project’s model as a blueprint for NPI’s general outreach. Joe Garcia, a Florida political operative, will run the Hispanic project.