By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 7, 2005
At least 80 wealthy liberals have pledged to contribute $1 million or more apiece to fund a network of think tanks and advocacy groups to compete with the potent conservative infrastructure built up over the past three decades.
The money will be channeled through a new partnership called the Democracy Alliance, which was founded last spring -- the latest in a series of liberal initiatives as the Democratic Party and its allies continue to struggle with the loss of the House and the Senate in 1994 and the presidency in 2000. Many influential Democratic contributors were left angry and despairing over the party's poor showing in last year's elections, and are looking for what they hope will be more effective ways to invest their support.
Financial commitments totaling at least $80 million over the next five years generated by the Democracy Alliance in recent months -- at a time when some liberal groups, such as the George Soros-backed America Coming Together, are floundering -- suggest that the group is becoming a player in the long-term effort to reinvigorate the left. The group has a goal of raising $200 million -- a sum that would inevitably come in part at the expense of more traditional Democratic groups, although alliance officials say donors have committed to maintaining past contribution levels.
Alliance chairman Steven Gluckstern, a retired investment banker, said that President Bush's victory over Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) last year after millions of dollars had been poured into pro-Democratic "527" groups caused many contributors to think that a dramatically new approach is needed.
"It wasn't only the failure to win, it was the question 'What does it take to win?' " Gluckstern said. "Among the lessons learned was that to bring back the progressive majority in this country is not just a periodic election investment strategy."
The Democracy Alliance will act as a financial clearing house. Its staff members and board of directors will develop a lineup of established and proposed groups that they believe will develop and promote ideas on the left. To fulfill their million-dollar pledge, each partner must agree to give $200,000 or more a year for at least five years to alliance-endorsed groups.
The alliance is the brainchild of longtime Democratic strategist Rob Stein, who spent years studying conservative groups -- in particular their success in sustaining GOP politicians and achieving many of their policy goals. Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, is working with Stein and is a leading promoter of his effort.
Rosenberg said liberals and Democrats now face a conservative "information-age Tammany Hall, a 21st century political machine, that is simply better than what we have on our side.
"The infrastructure we have was built for a different time and mission. It was built around the congressional majority we had for 60 years in the 20th century, the labor movement and the urban-ethnic city machines," he added.
As alliance officials see it, many liberal groups are designed to protect an agenda that was enacted by past Democratic majorities -- as opposed to generating new ideas and communication strategies to win support from voters who do not belong to labor or other traditionally Democratic constituencies.
Among those on the board are Ann S. Bowers, founding trustee of the Noyce Foundation and former executive at Intel Corp.; Albert C. Yates, former president of Colorado State University; and California high-tech entrepreneur Davidi Gilo.
The goal of the alliance, according to organizers, is to foster the growth of liberal or left-leaning institutions equipped to take on prominent think tanks on the right, including the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute, as well as such training centers as the Leadership Institute and the Young America's Foundation.
Almost all the alliance partners have been active donors of the Democratic Party and liberal interest groups. Many said they have concluded that their spending to date has lacked strategic coherence.
"There never has been an organized or coordinated look at connecting the dots of the progressive movement," said San Francisco businessman Mark Buell. He and his wife, Esprit de Corps founder Susie T. Buell, are major Democratic donors. Mark Buell, an alliance board member, said: "For 40 years, we had a voice somewhere, the White House, Congress, the Senate. For the first time, we find ourselves without a voice."
"To be effective in the 21st century in promoting your beliefs, it is necessary to have a financially secure institutional infrastructure that has the capacity to promote consistently and coherently a set of ideas, policies and messages," Stein said. "We understand that it's very hard to promote a belief system and to be operationally high performing if you don't have multi-year funding."
The shift of big money givers to the alliance poses a threat to the survival of such pro-Democratic independent groups as America Coming Together and the Media Fund. These two groups depended on many of the same donors to raise $196.7 million in 2003 and 2004. ACT recently announced that it is closing state offices and laying off most staff members. Democratic sources said its long-term survival is in doubt.
Soros, the billionaire financier, was the most prominent backer of the 2004 Democratic groups, but he has assumed only a modest role in the Democracy Alliance. He has stopped donating to ACT.
There has been a flourishing of new, pro-Democratic think tanks and advocacy groups in recent years. Clinton administration chief of staff John D. Podesta established the Center for American Progress; former Democratic congressional aide David Sirota recently set up the state-oriented Progressive Legislative Action Network; and author David Brock helped create Media Matters for America last year, among others. All these groups are potential recipients of money from alliance partners.
In addition, the number of liberal bloggers on the Web has been growing at a fast pace, and their blogs have become both central forums for debate over party strategies and hugely successful vehicles for campaign fundraising, including raising through online contributions more than two thirds of the $750,000 used in the surprisingly competitive House campaign of Democrat Paul Hackett in Ohio. Rosenberg has created the New Politics Institute, an organization that works with bloggers.
Alliance organizers said they are seeking to avoid involvement in the ideological disputes that have plagued Democrats in recent years. But it may prove difficult to avoid them when the list of organizations eligible for contributions is drafted.
Stein has spent considerable time in the midst of internal Democratic wars, having served as chief of staff to the Clinton-Gore transition in 1992 and strategic adviser to former Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown. In recent years, he has become a venture capitalist.
Jockeying for cash among possible recipient organizations has already begun. Robert L. Borosage, director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future, said the alliance will fund a "set of institutions in this city to be in the national debate, and we would like to be one of them."
Stein, who closely examined the finances of institutions on the right and left over the past two years, contends that there is a huge financial imbalance favoring conservatives that he puts at $295 million vs. $75 million.
In 2003, the 19 progressive organizations with budgets exceeding $1 million spent a total of $75 million, he said. In contrast, the 24 national think tanks on the right had $170 million in spending, along with state-based policy centers' $50 million and campus-based conservative policy organizations' $75 million to $100 million, according to Stein.
Liberal groups have been disproportionately dependent on one-year foundation grants for specific projects, Stein said, while the money flowing to conservative groups has often involved donors' long-term commitments with no strings attached. Stein noted that of 200 major conservative donors, about half sit on the boards of the think tanks they give to, increasing the strength of their commitment.