Think Tank's Leader Charts A New Course

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) with John D. Podesta, chief executive of the Center for American Progress, at a news conference earlier this month. Feinstein has adopted the center's proposal for troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2007.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) with John D. Podesta, chief executive of the Center for American Progress, at a news conference earlier this month. Feinstein has adopted the center's proposal for troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2007. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 22, 2006

After national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley delivered a speech unveiling President Bush's new national security strategy, departing audience members were handed glossy, red-white-and-blue booklets titled "Integrated Power: A National Security Strategy for the 21st Century."

The booklets, however, outlined not Bush's strategy but that of the Center for American Progress, a three-year-old left-of-center think tank and refuge for Clinton administration alumni. Rather than issue a paper and hope it would be noticed, the center dispatched aides to personally deliver its rebuttal.

The moment outside the Mayflower Hotel this spring captured the essence of the Center for American Progress. Suffice it to say, this is not a traditional think tank. Founded by John D. Podesta, who was chief of staff in the Clinton White House, the center blends the scholarship of old-style research organizations with the in-your-face war room tactics of a presidential campaign. Ideas are only part of the mission. Selling them in a 24-7 Internet world is the challenge.

"We're definitely trying to shape debate and be engaged," Podesta said in his well-appointed headquarters brimming with flat-screen televisions and computer screens just blocks from the White House.

Bankrolled by wealthy liberals such as financier George Soros and bankers Herb and Marion Sandler, the center has emerged as a growing force within the Democratic Party, aggressively making the case against the Bush administration even when congressional leaders and the party itself do not.

Its brand of advocacy is more brash than bookish. Podesta goes on CNN to debate conservatives pundits, and after a White House shake-up, his staff e-mailed reporters, cackling at Karl Rove's "demotion." The center distributed research accusing Bush of inconsistency when he said the national anthem should be sung in English, not Spanish. And it has developed a proposal to pull all troops out of Iraq by the end of 2007 and redeploy them to nearby countries, a plan adopted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Before Bush's State of the Union address, the center produced an election-style video from past speeches, juxtaposing promises to address various problems against statistics showing them growing worse. Last week, it unveiled a similar video attacking Bush energy policies, played by Democratic senators during a news briefing and presented by actor Robert Redford on "Larry King Live."

"There's a lot of energy in the building -- you can feel it," said former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), senior fellow at the center. "We think it's important to come up with ideas, but espouse them in a way that gives them traction in the ongoing debate that can make a difference."

As Democrats struggle to take advantage of Republican weakness this fall and in 2008, some see Podesta's center as a Clinton White House in exile, an ideas factory for the expected presidential run of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). "The right describes us as Hillary's think tank," Podesta said.

"The reality is, we work with a very broad range of actors in the political policy world." The main thing, he said, is to avoid the staid think-tank tone: "That's not us. We do have a point of view. We think we're out there fighting for middle-class people and poor people, and trying to give people a leg up. We think of ourselves as people who will break china and think outside the box."

Invariably, it seems to be Republican china that is broken. Although officially nonpartisan for tax purposes, the center has an unmistakably partisan flavor. "They may think they're doing completely policy work, but when you look at their funding, when you look at who runs them, it would have to be looked at as a Democratic group," Republican National Committee spokesman Brian Jones said. "It's hard to take CAP seriously as a policy organization."

Democrats have embraced it. "I'm so proud of you and everyone that works here," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) told Podesta when he came to the center to deliver a "prebuttal" to Bush's State of the Union address. "We now have an organization in Washington, in our country, that competes with the right-wing drivel that has come from this capital for so long."

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