By Edwin Chen
Soros-Funded Democratic Idea Factory Becomes Obama Policy Front
Thanks in part to funding from benefactors such as billionaire George Soros, the Center for American Progress has become in just five years an intellectual wellspring for Democratic policy proposals, including many that are shaping the agenda of the new Obama administration.
Much as the Heritage Foundation provided intellectual heft for the Republican Party in the 1980s, CAP has been an incubator for liberal thought and helped build the platform that triumphed in the 2008 campaign.
“What CAP has done is recapture the role of ideas as an important political force, something the Republicans had been better at for 25 years,” said Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, a non-partisan policy-research organization in Washington.
CAP’s president and founder, John Podesta, 59, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, is one of three people running the transition team for president-elect Barack Obama, 47. A squadron of CAP experts is working with them.
Some of the group’s recommendations already have been adopted by the president-elect.
These include the center’s call for a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and a buildup of forces in Afghanistan, a plan for universal health coverage through employer plans and proposals to create purchasing pools that allow small businesses to spread the cost among a larger group of workers. Obama has endorsed much of a CAP plan to create “green jobs” linked to alleviating global climate change.
CAP also is advocating the creation of a “National Energy Council” headed by an official with the stature of the national security adviser and who would be charged with “transforming the energy base” of the U.S. In addition, CAP urges the creation of a White House “office of social entrepreneurship” to spur new ideas for addressing social problems.
To help promote its ideas, CAP employs 11 full-time bloggers who contribute to two Web sites, ThinkProgress and the Wonk Room; others prepare daily feeds for radio stations. The center’s policy briefings are standing-room only, packed with lobbyists, advocacy-group representatives and reporters looking for insights on where the Obama administration is headed.
“The center is the premier progressive think tank in Washington,” said Mark Green, head of the New Democracy Project, an urban-affairs institute in New York.
Just eight days after the Nov. 4 election, CAP released a 300,000-word volume called “Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President” that offers advice on issues such as economic revival and fixing the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Work on the book began almost a year ago.
CAP, which has 180 staffers and a $27 million budget, devotes as much as half of its resources to promoting its ideas through blogs, events, publications and media outreach.
The center’s future was far from certain in 2003, when wealthy donors such as Soros and film producer Stephen Bing gave $10 million or more to fill what they believed was an intellectual void in the Democratic Party and create a vehicle to produce an agenda for the party’s eventual return to power.
Podesta modeled the center on the Heritage Foundation, which became the go-to policy-research organization in 1981 when newly elected President Ronald Reagan embraced its conservative ideas embodied in a book called “Mandate for Leadership.” Heritage was just seven years old.
CAP and Heritage have something else in common.
“Others strive to be objective, we don’t,” said Jennifer Palmieri, CAP’s vice president for communications.
Podesta likes to say, “we’re not a think tank, we’re an action tank,” said Dan Weiss, an environmental activist who joined CAP last year.
CAP isn’t the only Democratic-leaning research organization in Washington with enhanced cachet after Obama’s election.
The 92-year-old Brookings Institution, for example, has advisers in Obama’s inner circle, including economist Jason Furman and foreign-policy expert Susan Rice. Others are working either part-time or full-time in the Obama transition.
Podesta’s center isn’t even among the biggest or best- funded. Brookings has a staff of more than 400 and an annual budget of $48 million. Heritage has a staff of 200 and a budget of $60 million. The American Enterprise Institute, which has close ties to the administration of President George W. Bush, has about 140 staffers, including Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, and a budget of $28 million.
Yet CAP may be the most influential. In addition to Podesta, at least 10 other CAP experts are advising the incoming administration, including Melody Barnes, the center’s executive vice president for policy who co-chairs the agency-review working group and Cassandra Butts, the senior vice president for domestic policy, who is now a senior transition staffer.
“John understood that ideas have power in this town, and he brought in super-bright people whose ideas have become essential reading,” Isaacson said.
CAP’s successes offer a lesson for Republican-leaning groups, said James McGann, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia who tracks policy groups.