The New York Times reported yesterday that a group of Republican leaders, led by Norm Coleman and McCain campaign policy adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin, is founding a new conservative organization modeled after the left-wing Center for American Progress (CAP). The think tank, to be called the American Action Network, will comprise both a 501(c)3 research arm and a 501(c)4 advocacy arm. The CAP was founded in 2003 by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta and quickly rose to prominence in part by capitalizing on left-wing anger at the Bush administration. The CAP is widely considered the think tank most influential in the Obama administration: Podesta was the co-chair of Obama’s transition team, and CAP facilitates a pro-administration left-wing messaging network.
At first glance an institution with similar political cachet among conservatives would clearly be advantageous to Republicans. But Steve Benen of the Washington Journal noted that a right-wing attempt to imitate CAP’s success is a bit odd in historical context:
When the idea for the Center for American Progress was first coming together, it was widely apparent to progressive leaders that the left lacked the intellectual infrastructure of the right. Conservatives already had plenty of think tanks — Heritage Foundation, AEI, Cato, and to a lesser extent, the Family Research Council — churning out right-wing ideas and serving as something of a farm team for Republican administrations and congressional leaders. The left decided it needed to keep up and create some parallel entities.
And now the right looks at CAP and thinks, “Hey, we need one of those.”
One key development, which Benen also references, is the Citizens United ruling on corporate funding of political advocacy groups, which the Times reports “potentially will allow the organization to take unlimited contributions from corporations and individuals to use to advertise for or against political candidates.” Having a 501(c)4 arm that can accept those contributions provides an advantage that the traditional research institutions like Heritage and AEI don’t have.
Another feature that sets CAP apart from the right-wing organizations is its messaging operation. It was a leader in sending out a daily briefing and using blogs to disseminate research, which are both now common practices among think tanks. But it also took the unusual step of hiring professional bloggers to spread its ideas. Joseph Romm, a giant among environmental experts, blogs for their climateprogess.org. And CAP hired Matt Yglesias, a prominent young liberal blogger, away from the Atlantic to blog under their umbrella.
So far CAP’s strategies seem to be paying enormous dividends. The question, though, is whether those strategies can also work for the right.