WASHINGTON, Dec. 10 (UPI) -- What makes the New America Foundation so hot?
The 4-year-old think tank appears to have lost none of its momentum since it first burst on the staid policy scene with a very high public profile. And if the major press attention it has received lately is any indication, it continues to gain influence nationally -- and in Washington.
Three NAF scholars were included on the list of the "best and the brightest" new thinkers in the December issue of Esquire magazine, and in an upcoming special policy section of the Atlantic Monthly, 12 of the 13 of the essays in the supplement were penned by writers associated with the think tank.
This follows the publication, since 1999, of two dozen cover stories and articles penned by NAF fellows in major magazines including The New York Times Magazine, the conservative Weekly Standard, the center-left New Republic and the liberal Mother Jones and Wilson Quarterly.
In addition, a yet-to-be-released paper by Steven Clemons, executive vice president of NAF, has been widely discussed in the think tank world for openly criticizing the links between Washington lobbyists and think tanks, and questioning the integrity of think tanks in general.
Such public attention is not new for a think tank that was initially heralded as the next big thing in the close-knit Washington policy world. But questions remain as to whether all the attention garnered by NAF is the result of its having assembled a team of bright young writers and thinkers whose ideas are appealing across a broad political spectrum, or the outcome of a combination of cunning institutional planning and agile marketing.
Those who head NAF say that both factors play an important part. NAF employs analysts in the traditional think tank mode, but it also provides fellowships for a crew of policy-oriented journalists who write many of the articles that have brought the organization much of its public attention.
According to Clemons, the marketing of the ideas of these fellows is a key aspect of NAF's operation.
"We are trying to get good ideas out into the media," Clemons told United Press International.
He said this effort has paid off, and has resulted in calls from the administration and Congress for meetings on IT issues, privacy issues and immigration.
Clemons said NAF makes a strong effort to develop relationships with the media, which does not necessarily mean that writing by its fellows is published in major media more often than the work of fellows at other think tanks, but does mean that editors notice their work.
The connections between the media and NAF are unquestionably a major reason for much of its early success. Although many of the top think tanks count journalists as part of their stable of thinkers, 11 of the 27 fellows at NAF are journalists. The tank also has six analysts that serve in senior staff positions.
In addition, James Fallows, the Atlantic Monthly's national correspondent, is chairman of NAF's board of directors, and David Bradley, who publishes the Atlantic, is said to be a close friend of Ted Halstead, the founding chief executive officer and president of NAF.
According to Halstead, much of his think tank's success is attributable to its focus on promoting ideas through large media outlets, instead of the traditional method favored by most think tanks -- of self-publishing papers and journals that are then promoted via media outreach.
"We see ourselves as content providers for the leading publications," Halstead told UPI. "It is just a strategic decision that we made early on."
Part of this approach, he said, is also NAF's "venture capital model" for hiring fellows, which pays them only one-fourth to one-third of what analysts earn at other think tanks, but which gives them copious freedom to pursue their work, along with other sources of income such as book contracts and speaking fees.
Clemons said that NAF is still struggling to some extent to gain acceptance in a crowded field of think tanks that includes well-established institutions like the libertarian Cato Institute and the conservative Heritage Foundation, which have a quarter-century of development behind them and significant marketing strengths of their own.
NAF -- which describes its political position as "radical centrist" -- also faces the venerable think tanks that still dominate many policy debates, such as the center-left Brookings Institution and the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which date back, respectively, to 1927 and 1943.
Nevertheless, analysts and officials at such established think tanks agree that NAF has been particularly adept at successfully marketing itself in a very short time, and at gaining valuable media attention, not only through articles written by its fellows but also by marketing policy ideas in general.
"They do a really great job of positioning their organization, of being impressive, on topic and immediate," said a marketing official at one of the largest think tanks in Washington. "Only time will tell if they have a lasting impact."
Clemons and Halstead both said that NAF's radical centrist ideology is one of the major forces behind the recognition it is receiving. Employing fellows who bridge the gulf between conservative and progressive ideology, they believe, allows NAF to have a stable of thinkers that defies the traditional political thinking that limits much of the policy output from more established think tanks.
"One of the reasons underlying our success is that we have tried to build New America as a home for the intellectually homeless," said Halstead. "I think that is an important factor in our success."
While it gets plenty of attention, NAF is not without its critics. Some who dealt with the think tank in its early days have said that Halstead had no problem tailoring NAF's image to please potential allies and funding sources early on, but failed to follow through with that ideology over time.
Eric Alterman, a columnist at The Nation and a fellow at the liberal World Policy Institute -- which was briefly associated with NAF -- has said that NAF was at one time promoted as the home of the sensible left, but has never been progressive in the liberal sense of the term. Alterman declined to be interviewed for this story.
In addition, several analysts at both large and small think tanks said that although there is some good work coming out of NAF, its policy ideas can be muddled by its radical centrist philosophy.
"There (is) no 'there,' there," said a foreign policy analyst at one of the largest conservative think tanks in Washington. "I think that the tagline is a great way to get funding, but if you are (ideologically) mushy it causes problems in terms of how your work is viewed."
In addition, analysts from various points on the policy spectrum said that a focus like NAF's -- on journalism over traditional policy research and academic-style publishing -- could result in analysis that is soft on background and development.
Halstead said that such criticisms ignore the fact that that many of the big ideas on which NAF is focused are revolutionary, long-term policies, such as de-linking health insurance from employment, or embracing school choice as part of fundamental education reform.
He compared the type of ideas coming out of NAF to the large policy concepts that come about during presidential campaigns, but which are not fully developed until an administration takes office.
Halstead added that it is unfair to call such work-in-progress shallow because these ideas represent the kind of important far-reaching, long-term thinking that is critical, but absent, in a policy world that is often focused on the short-term political viability of policy ideas.
"I think these ideas themselves are resolutely sound," he said. "I have tried to focus us on serious pragmatic solutions to the biggest programs. Where exactly are the big ideas coming from? I think there are relatively few in town."