Remaking the Think Tank Into Political War Room

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 2003

As they prepared for the 2004 presidential election and beyond, a small group of liberal donors led by bankers Herb and Marion Sandler concluded that the Left needed a new kind of think tank that would combine public-policy research with political activism. Joined by real-estate magnate Steve Bing, insurance mogul Peter Lewis, and investor George Soros, they bankrolled the Center for American Progress, to be directed by Clinton-administration operative John Podesta. They were motivated by a sense among many liberals that Republicans benefited from an infrastructure of conservative think tanks, and that Democrats enjoyed nothing similar. The Brookings Institution, numerous academic centers at universities, and many liberal advocacy organizations existed, but these funders did not consider them as effective as groups like the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, and American Enterprise Institute. A series of reports from the left-wing National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy on how the right-leaning think tanks had been built by donors was also influential in sparking wealthy liberals to act.

Podesta’s idea was to create a nonprofit organization that would have a traditional think-tank arm (a research group eligible for tax-deductible donations), as well as a legislative advocacy arm (not eligible for tax-deductible donations). This combination of 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) was an innovation for large-scale research institutions. “With the Center for American Progress, Podesta was trying to create something new,” wrote journalist Byron York, “a think tank that doubled as a campaign war room.” Podesta himself described CAP as “a think tank on steroids.”

The donors did not achieve their immediate objective of electing a Democrat to the Presidency in 2004, but CAP became an aggressive part of the left-wing political machine. Its “communications” department became its largest office, and dispatching the organization’s employees for “rapid response” media attacks on conservative arguments or proponents became the central function of the group. Its influence on the political discourse aided Democratic triumphs in the 2006 congressional elections, and Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012.

CAP attempts to hide its financial information as much as possible. By 2014, though, the group’s budget was more than $45 million. Copying Podesta’s model, the Heritage Foundation launched its own 501(c)(4) group seven years after the creation of CAP.