Center-left think tanks gain ground

New center-left think tanks are helping congressional Democrats combat perceived weaknesses on national security and cultural issues.

Democrats have felt out-think-tanked, if not necessarily outthought, by their Republicans counterparts since think tanks first began to challenge universities 30 years ago as a source for intellectual support of public policy positions. Conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute have helped Republicans to craft a message of small government, tax cuts and, during the 1980s and ’90s, welfare reform, that resonated with voters.
Brookings Institution and other Democratic-aligned groups countered GOP policy claims. But when it came to think tanks, “we were outnumbered,” former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said.

Former White House chief of staff John Podesta founded the Center for American Progress (CAP) in 2003 with the express purpose of combating both the right’s numerical advantage in white-paper factories and the GOP talent for messaging. In four years, CAP has become among the most influential groups on Capitol Hill, a number of Democratic lobbyists said.
With a roster that includes other Clinton alums in addition to Podesta, CAP operates as part think tank, part war room to respond to issues of the day.

“This is a marriage of policy and communication,” said Melody Barnes, CAP’s executive vice president for policy and a former Senate Judiciary Committee chief counsel to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

“We devote resources to both. If you have a great idea and six people know about it, you aren’t doing anything.”

CAP has 19 people working in its communications department, and three vice presidents with titles that include the word “communications.” One is Jennifer Palmieri, a deputy press secretary during the Clinton administration who is now CAP vice president of communications. CAP’s mission, she says, is to be “more strategic in how you present ideas and more aggressive in the critique of conservatism.”

The strategy includes a blog,, that gets 1 million unique visitors a month; an in-house studio for TV and radio interviews; and a nearly daily stream of newspaper columns written by CAP fellows and staff.

The critiques included a CAP study on how much deporting the illegal immigrants currently in the country would cost, a budget-busting argument akin to ones Republicans have used to challenge Democratic policies.

“Folks on the Hill weren’t thinking in those terms,” CAP’s director for government affairs, Ilia Rodriguez, said.
A more recent CAP-sponsored briefing showcased the group’s jujitsu-like use of religion against the GOP, asking, “Who would Jesus deport?”

CAP’s work also provided a counter to Republican claims that Democrats had no alternative strategy to the administration’s tactics for Iraq.

Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis released a strategic redeployment in September of 2005, two months before Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) came out against the administration’s Iraq strategy in November of that year.

More recently, CAP put out a paper on the stress the surge would cause American troops.

Through the help of a few powerful financial backers such as Herb Sandler, a California banker, CAP expects to raise and spend $18 million this year, which dwarfs most left-leaning groups. Its resources allow it to support a stable of Hill veterans, including Daschle, who joined CAP as senior fellow after he lost his reelection bid in 2004.

Daschle credits Brookings and the Center for National Policy as being particularly helpful during his time in Congress.
But he said CAP’s communications ability has “filled a critical void that is increasingly appreciated” among Democrats on Capitol Hill.

As the Iraq case shows, today’s Democratic think tanks are cognizant of issues that have traditionally been sore points with voters. The soft-on-defense tag was a “straw man that needed to be beaten down,” Barnes said.

Another group, the Third Way, helped Democratic Sens. Dick DurbinDick DurbinInfrastructure bill carves out boosts to first responders, wildland firefighters Democrats face critical 72 hours Bipartisan lawmakers target judges' stock trading with new bill MORE of Illinois, Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperDemocrats say they have path to deal on climate provisions in spending bill Democratic senator: Methane fee could be 'in jeopardy' Climate activists confront Manchin outside of Capitol MORE of Delaware craft an anti-terrorism paper released earlier this month.

The Third Way briefed Senate chiefs of staff this month on the results of a poll it had sponsored in conjunction with the terrorism report. The group warned Democrats that a majority of respondents still expressed concern over whether party leaders are “tough enough to do what is needed to protect America.”

“Democrats’ challenges have not gone away with the rise in disgust with Bush and Republicans” over Iraq, according to Matt Bennett, Third Way’s vice president for public policy.

The group also helped members craft a policy that called for increasing the size of the Army by 100,000 additional troops, an un-Democratic-Party-like stance that nevertheless provided another avenue to criticize the administration’s handling of the war.

Third Way was founded by Americans for Gun Safety alums like Bennett to fill a specific niche: Target the Senate Democrats who at the time had more power than their House counterparts to have an impact on public policy.

The group was determined to shun a traditional think tank tactic — the 50-plus-page briefing — in favor of short, single-page policy statements members were more likely to read that focused on issues that appealed to independents in particular.

With a budget of $3.5 million, Third Way doesn’t have the reach of CAP. But six senators serve as co-chairmen or -vice chairmen to the group. Third Way considers itself to be especially tied in to the upper chamber, and is also branching out to build more relationships in the House, paying particular attention to leadership offices and moderate groups, including the Blue Dogs and the New Democrat Coalition.

Third Way, which receives corporate donations, is in some ways more business-friendly than other Democratic-allied groups. It continues to be a big supporter of free trade — a position counter to the Economic Policy Institute, which joins labor groups to oppose the spread of globalization.

As Democrats on Capitol Hill have cut back on holding formal briefings for lobbyists for fear of perception problems, Third Way has tried to fill the communications void. It sponsors twice-monthly meetings that attract about 75 staff aides and lobbyists, Bennett said.

Third Way also has a special focus on cultural issues Democrats say Republicans have used as wedge issues to split off voters. The group, for example, helped pro-choice Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who favors abortion rights, and Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who opposes them, craft an abortion bill that seeks to hold the vanishing middle ground on the hot-button issue.
The bill includes more money for education to prevent teen pregnancies and tax credits to offset adoption expenses.

The new groups contribute — along with Brookings and the Democratic Leadership Council’s Progressive Policy Institute, responsible for several of the centrist positions the Clinton administration embraced — to a “competition of ideas” within the Democratic Party, Bennett said.