In the first installment of a new series of Q&As with think tank presidents for The Fed Page, Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden talks with Allen McDuffee of The Washington Post’s Think Tanked blog, where the entirety of this interview can be found.
You’re still in your first year as president of the Center for American Progress (CAP). What parts of this job did you not anticipate?
Fortunately, I was chief operating officer at CAP before I became president, so I had a pretty good understanding and sense of things from a lot of managing the institution in that role. But what has been a good surprise is the level of attention people pay to every aspect of what we do — even among the people who disagree — in both our think tank and our action wing, CAP Action Fund. Overall, that’s a fantastic thing. However, there are occasions on certain issues, such as Social Security, that people see our positions through a lens that we didn’t intend.
Another thing I hadn’t quite thought of is that very few of the meetings I go to for leaders of organizations have women and women of color, especially in these positions. I think it’s a good statement about CAP and the role we’re playing in the community of organizations. It’s an interesting phenomenon that Washington is still dominated by an old guard.
Why is it that women’s issues are playing such a significant role in this particular election cycle?
I think there’s been a confluence of events that have come together in a particular way. Fundamentally, I think there are college-educated women and independent women voters who are much more up for grabs than in previous election cycles.
What’s really happening in my view is that we’ve had a conversation on a few sets of issues that have really polarized the base of the Republican Party. When Republicans came in office under the guise of focusing on economic issues and then chose to focus on an abortion-defunding bill and Planned Parenthood and the contraception debate, women became front and center. And then politicians weighing in on the Susan G. Komen-Planned Parenthood issue at the same time made women’s issues unavoidable.
For some generations of women, these are old debates. Why are they still carrying on?
I’ve worked on women’s issues for decades, and the real challenge for the women’s movement has been trying to communicate issues like access to birth control as meaningful to younger women because it’s just an accepted part of their life. But when something happens like the Virginia case where women who want to exercise the right to have an abortion actually have to go through what seems like a physical assault on their person, it just opens up a whole new dynamic for this generation of women. And most of these women never thought that contraception would have been a contentious issue or that the issue of choice would be at the center of so many debates. On some level, this shows the success of the anti-choice forces that moved this debate to front and center is actually clarifying the debate.
What would a progressive agenda for women look like if you didn’t have to deal with these old fights right now?
Women face particular pressures for work and family. It’s been like that for a long time, but what we could do as progressives is make sure that there’s proper support for both work and family issues. We take seriously the importance of a series of initiatives and policies that address family and work needs that are important for women, but families in general. We’ve worked a lot on paid-leave policies, and we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the next generation of sex-discrimination laws.
What role are think tanks playing in the 2012 elections?
Our most fundamental goal is to provide positive ideas and to make those ideas part of a governing agenda. The important thing for think tanks is to ensure their credibility over the long term — and people will take a think tank seriously if their ideas are serious, and all organizations have to be mindful of that. If not, we risk the credibility we’ve built up over these last 10 years, and that’s not good for the long-term status of the organization. With the changing media landscape, so much more of what we’ve always done is now much more public, which has both positive and negative consequences.
CAP has been very successful in steering debates through its blog network, ThinkProgress. How much of the think tank’s overall success can be attributed to it?
CAP has been a successful innovator in finding new ways to communicate. Again, we had a group of people who came to CAP who are very innovative and creative. When we started with the Progress Report and then ThinkProgress, that wasn’t something that came from top management — it came from from younger people, who are more innovative than its previous generation.
There’s an interesting new dynamic in that realm with social media, and we’ve been successful at building social-media campaigns around important issues. And because we have over 100,000 Twitter followers, we’ve really been able to drive the conversation with that. For example, one of our more recent successes was in driving attention toward the Trayvon Martin case. . . . But what changed everything at the end of the day in that case is mainstream media paying attention to it and reporting on it.