Saturday, October 25

'Bout Damned Time

Liberals Get A Think Tank Of Their Own
New Shop Will Develop Ideas, Fight Conservatives

To most Washington think tank executives, $10 million or $12 million per year for three years would sound like a lot of money.

But then, they are not trying to do what former White House chief of staff John D. Podesta has in mind for his new Center for American Progress. Podesta's ambition is to update the liberal agenda while beating back the conservative tide. Also, to discover, train and promote a new generation of liberal spokesmen. In other words, he wants to give the left of the American political spectrum a think tank to match the Heritage Foundation on the right.

The seed money pledged by such deep-pocketed Democrats as financier George Soros and mortgage billionaires Herbert and Marion Sandler -- while serious dough -- is barely enough to make a beginning.

On the other hand, Heritage got started on less. Hatched amid the ruins of the post-Watergate Republican Party, Heritage has grown into a $30 million-a-year operation -- a hatchery of ideas, yes, but also a packager, promoter, expediter, wholesaler, matchmaker and orchestrator. It is the hub of a network of loosely aligned conservative brain barns with budgets totaling $100 million or so.

Liberals have been pining for many years for something similar on their side, Podesta said in an interview this week. "For as long as I can remember," he said, "people have talked about the rise of the Republican think tank machine with a powerful communications machinery really embedded inside it -- creating the ability not just to develop the philosophy but to sell it."

What really drove home the need was the election of 2002, when Democrats found themselves out of power at every level of government. Podesta, a man with many admirers and few enemies despite 30 years in politics, agreed to take on the project.

Already more than half the anticipated staff has been hired -- 35 of what will become a staff of about 65. The center today plans to name its first nine fellows.