Left moves to boost its intellectual bulwark

Well-heeled Democrats rally to craft a network of think tanks - a message machine to counter conservatives.

For more than 60 years, progressive power was the default setting for American politics. Between 1932 and 1994, Democrats controlled the White House or one house of Congress. They established programs, Social Security and Medicare chief among them, that radically altered the scope and aim of government.

Since George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000, however, the self-proclaimed "party of the people" has wandered the political wilderness.

Now, a new cadre of progressive activists has a bold plan to recapture that Promised Land: build their own version of what some prominent Democrats have dubbed a "vast, right-wing conspiracy" - but on the left instead.

Led by the Democracy Alliance, a community of donors based in Rosslyn, Va., these activists are building a new intellectual infrastructure - think tanks, advocacy groups, and leadership training - to counter a conservative message machine they say has long outmatched theirs.

It's a gambit that's also a clear shift in focus for a political movement that has traditionally emphasized grass-roots outreach. But after three straight electoral defeats, Democrats are eager to embrace methods proven so successful for the right, analysts say.

Even as independent pro-Democratic groups like America Coming Together struggle for long-term survival, the year-old Democracy Alliance has secured more than $80 million in pledges from rich, liberal donors.

But that money won't fund ads by the likes of MoveOn.org, as it did in the 2004 campaign. Instead, Democracy Alliance is acting as a financial clearinghouse, one that intends to direct as much as $200 million over several years to strengthen the long-term prospects for progressive ideals. It's an approach Democracy Alliance founder Rob Stein calls "patient capital."

"In the world of ideas and movement-building and politics, there are short-term needs and long-term needs," he says. "We're going to be tactical, but ... we have to build for the long term."

After the 2002 mid-term elections, Mr. Stein, a former investment banker and veteran of Bill Clinton's Commerce Department, burned the midnight oil researching conservative groups. His effort resulted in the Phoenix Project, a series of PowerPoint presentations he began showing to select individuals two years ago. His outline of the conservative movement's rise to power struck a chord with political venture capitalists, who marveled at the scale of what they were up against. The effort reached critical mass this spring, when financier and Democratic activist George Soros headlined a meeting of 70 millionaires and billionaires in Scottsdale, Ariz., to discuss how to grow the left's ideological assets.

"Conservatives understand, and operate under the assumption, that politics happens every day, not just three months before an election," says Simon Rosenberg, a Phoenix Project coordinator who heads the New Democrat Network, a progressive advocacy organization. "That's an important insight."

Slides depicting a powerful political nemesis are a fine fundraising technique. But are claims that the right possesses a vastly superior message machine true?

"Conservative think tanks outnumber liberal ones by about 2-to-1, and they out-resource liberal ones by about 3-to-1," says Andrew Rich, a political science professor at City College of New York and author of "Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise."

But this superiority comes in the context of liberal media dominance, some say.

"Big-government liberals control the major networks, the major newspapers, the universities, and it strikes me as amusing that they are jumping in the air shouting 'eek' when they see a number of think tanks," says David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute. "There's not a huge imbalance."

Even as each side lays claim to being a David facing Goliath, liberals should take heart because the challenge is less bleak than it seems, some say.

"When conservatives began in the 1950s, they had been ideologically discredited," Mr. Rosenberg says. "Conservatives rebuilt from nothing."Progressives, by contrast, are beginning from a much stronger foundation, he says.

The challenge is to turn that good will into a political majority, progressive leaders say. Even as liberals continue to see electoral promise in the power of "net- roots" activism, building support through websites such as ActBlue, more are arguing that think tanks are the way to go.

At the top of the current Democracy Alliance agenda: promoting greater maturity for progressive think tanks that exist, helping small ones grow, and developing new ones. Its aim is neither new nor remarkable, but the scope is. Having wedded itself to the richest liberal donors in America, and divorced itself from the deadlines of a political calendar, the Democracy Alliance, along with other like-minded groups, has the resources to build a pyramid of progressive power.

Still, some warn against group think.

"We don't want to reinforce a level consensus," says Will Marshall, head of the Progressive Policy Institute. "We must "think strategically about why people are not voting for progressives."

A key task will be to develop multi-issue think tanks, instead of single-issue groups, like NARAL Pro-Choice America, that now dominate Democratic circles, Rich says. A key question is whether the network will follow the right's model of operating apart from electing candidates.

"These proposed new groups are designed to enhance the prospect of a political party," says Mr. Boaz. "That's the wrong approach."

But Rich says more liberal think tanks will enrich the marketplace of ideas. And even Boaz welcomes that. "We do understand the benefits of competition," he says.

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