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Analysis: Liberal think tank debuts

By
CHRISTIAN BOURGE, UPI Think Tank Correspondent

WASHINGTON, July 7 (UPI) -- Democratic Party insiders are placing their hopes for increasing the relevance of progressive thought in the Washington policy community on a new liberal-minded think tank aimed at countering conservative dominance of the sector.

Many in the political and think tank community are convinced the group will operate more as a political outfit than an academically inclined policy group due to the tank's close ties to Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. In addition, top staff at the tank is dominated by former political operatives.

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"It is the official Hillary Clinton think tank," a source with knowledge of the effort told United Press International.

Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta is leading the group, which is scheduled to officially open its doors this fall. It is currently functioning as the American Majority Institute, but the name is not yet definite.

Podesta and his team have reportedly raised $10 million for the operation. It remains unclear whether those funds represent the group's operating budget for the first year or seed money for the operation.

Podesta and his staff did not respond to requests for interviews, but those with knowledge of the operation told UPI that they are aiming for a big impact.

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"They have had no problem getting money," according to an official at a prominent conservative think tank. "That ($10 million) would immediately put them into the major think tank category."

Democrats have long bemoaned the fact that progressives have been unable to rival the policy power of conservative, Republican Party-centered think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, nor that of other prominent conservative policy groups such as the Hoover Institution and Hudson Institute. The American Enterprise Institute, which is dominated by neoconservatives, is generally considered to be the tank with the most influence on the current White House, and therefore around Washington.

More academically inclined groups, such as the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution -- which have many progressive-minded policy analysts but remain generally non-ideological -- do play pivotal roles in the nation's policy debates. Nevertheless, conservative think tanks tend to dominant the think-tank sector and have proven better at getting their ideas heard, especially by policymakers, than their liberal counterparts.

There are several liberal-minded think tanks around Washington, such as the Economic Policy Institute, which has ties to U.S. labor unions, and the respected Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Although these groups receive their share of attention, they have generally failed to have a significant impact on the policymaking community, especially since Bill Clinton left office and the Republicans took over control of Congress.

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It is not necessarily a question of inadequate financing as EPI has an annual budget of around $5 million. CBPP has an annual budget of around $9 million, which places it around the same level as a smaller conservative group like the Hudson Institute and libertarian Cato Institute.

The conservative Heritage Foundation is generally viewed as being the best among the city's most prominent think tanks for getting its message out, particularly to Capitol Hill. The New Democrat Institute is expected to have a strong communications component in an effort to counter the effective public relations operations of Heritage and other conservative groups.

This is a tall order given the entrenched nature of these organizations, and their immense budgets. Heritage has an annual operating budget of around $26 million, while AEI spends about $16 million annually to fund its activities.

Another issue for Democrats is that their political operatives do not generally see liberal-minded think tanks as the go-to places for Democratic Party policy needs. The agendas of these groups often do not align well with political reality or they are seen as too independent to be relied on.

The one progressive think tank that the new group is expected to impact most directly is the Progressive Policy Institute, which is affiliated with the liberal-centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Once considered an influential outfit in Washington and thought of by many as Bill Clinton's think tank, PPI's influence has faltered in the period since Clinton left office.

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The group has an annual budget of about $3 million and is expected to face off directly with the new tank, in the words of one Democratic Party operative, "for the soul of Democratic Party policy."

"This (new tank) will be a big headache for a lot of people and definitely should be to the left of PPI," said a top official at one prominent Washington think tank. "It means real competition for PPI."

Beyond Hillary Clinton, the effort reportedly has the support of several top party leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. Sources said that part of the reason for Podesta's fundraising success has been the involvement of Hillary Clinton, who has emerged as a prominent and influential player in the Democratic Party since taking office, raising millions of dollars through her political action committee. Sources indicated that many within Clinton's donor circle have also given money to the new outfit.

There is also talk that the new group could become a vehicle for unifying the party's political message, something that has become a problem in recent years, as evidenced by the lack of coherence in the party's message during the 2002 election. This effort could be enhanced by a think tank able to effectively produce and promote progressive policy ideas.

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The operation's close ties to Hillary Clinton have fueled speculation that it is part of an early attempt to for the senator to separate herself from other potential candidates in the 2008 presidential race by positioning herself as a candidate of new ideas. A spokesman for Clinton said that the senator is very supportive of the development of the new think tank because she believes there is a need for such a group.

International investor and philanthropist George Soros, who is chairman of the Open Society Institute and known for his financial support of liberal causes, is reportedly also backing the new tank. There is also Silicon Valley money behind the venture, with Steve Kirsch, the founder of the Internet search engine Infoseek and prominent Democratic Party donor, said to be involved in the start-up effort.

One issue that some think is driving the move is that it could provide Democratic Party-aligned special interest a way to push ideas into policy sphere without running afoul of the restrictions on campaign finance spending that took effect last fall. The new laws, currently on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, have forced large party donors to explore other potential ways in which to influence the political process.

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Given the lack of prominent think tanks that would appeal to the groups that are typical Democratic Party funding sources, such as labor unions and trial lawyers, the new policy groups could serve as outlet for their political action needs.

Think tank officials and political insiders alike are waiting to see how the group will position itself and fit into the policy community. Those with knowledge of the tank's development said that they expect it to focus on a wide variety of issues while placing a particular emphasis on traditional Democratic Party issues like healthcare. Homeland security is also expected to be a big issue for the tank.

"What everyone seems to agree on in the gossip mill is that they have the initial capacity to become a smart voice for the left," said an executive at one prominent think tank.

That potential is already gaining the attention of small liberal-minded tanks looking to make a greater impact in the policy process. An official at one respected liberal tank said they are already looking to work with Podesta's groups by providing liberal-minded research. They see the effort as a means to get a wider audience for their work.

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Democratic Party officials told UPI that they believe the party would really benefit form the development of a high-profile, Democrat-centered think tank. The concept is also receiving strong support in the Democratic community as a whole.

Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the New Democrat Network, told UPI that the tank should be a significant part of the broader effort to define the future of the party.

"I think what John and his team are doing is unbelievably important," said Rosenberg. "Democrats need modern infrastructure and more tools in our bag if we are going to build a more modern party than we have."

Nonetheless, Rosenberg stressed that the tank has a struggle ahead of them in creating an intellectual agenda for the party. Not only will it be difficult defining where they fall along the ideological spectrum, but it will be a major challenge getting new ideas heard in an already crowded marketplace.

Think tank officials also cautioned party insiders from getting too excited just yet about the new tank.

"The fact is that most think tanks don't last past the first year, just like restaurants," said a senior executive at one of the newer Washington think tanks.

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