Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, was deputy secretary of health and human services from 2007 to 2009. His article “Devaluing the Think Tank” was published in the winter issue of National Affairs.
The kerfuffle at the libertarian Cato Institute has drawn attention to the hyper-politicization of the Washington think tank in recent years. The news that Charles and David Koch filed a lawsuit that would enable them to take greater control of Cato has been followed by accusations and counter-accusations that make it hard to figure out who is doing what to whom. What’s clear, however, is that this fight is bad news for Cato’s brand and for think tanks in general.
Think tanks have become enormously important to policy development over the past half-century. The Brookings Institution was deeply involved in the design of what became the Marshall Plan for the postwar redevelopment of Western Europe. The American Enterprise Association — now Institute — helped engineer the dismantling of wartime controls on production and prices. And Cato, as Eric Lichtblau reported in the New York Times, “has successfully injected libertarian views into Washington policy and political debates, and given them mainstream respectability.”
In recent decades, however, think tanks — like much of our culture — have become increasingly political. This trend began after the emergence of the Heritage Foundation, which was the first think tank to embrace advocacy as a goal. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, Heritage compiled a comprehensive conservative agenda for the new administration. It contained more than 2,000 policy recommendations. By the end of Reagan’s second term, the administration had adopted more than 60 percent of the proposals.
Think tanks such as the Hoover Institution and AEI also worked closely with the administration. In 1988, Reagan said that “today the most important American scholarship comes out of our think tanks — and none has been more influential than the American Enterprise Institute.”
Heritage’s practical success encouraged imitators and helped usher in the era of what political scientist Donald Abelson has called the “advocacy think tank.” New Washington think tanks have tended to be less scholarly but increasingly political and are more likely to be tied to the fortunes of a party or a wing within a party.
Moderate Democrats used the Progressive Policy Institute to help generate ideas for the Clinton administration. After Bill Clinton’s win in 1992, former Bush administration officials created the Project for the Republican Future and Empower America.
(Neither exists in its original incarnation: PRF staff morphed into the Weekly Standard magazine in 1995, and Empower America merged with Citizens for a Sound Economy to become FreedomWorks in 2004.)
This trend reached new heights in 2003 with the creation of the Center for American Progress, which emphasizes politics and message development and devotes as much as 40 percent of its resources to communication and outreach, founder John Podesta has said (he said in 2008 that this is eight times as much as typical liberal policy organizations).
As White House deputy communications director Jennifer Palmieri said in 2008, when she was CAP’s vice president for communications: “Others strive to be objective, we don’t.” Last year, the New York Times reported, CAP helped encourage Occupy Wall Street protests.