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They Pretend to Think, We Pretend to Listen

Liberalism in the tank

Try to conjure up the dullest, most vapid intellectual experience you can possibly imagine. A Matthew Perry film festival. A boxed set of Kenny G’s entire discography. Al Gore “in conversation” with Wolf Blitzer.

Now imagine something worse. Far, far worse. Once you’ve hit the speculative bottom of the unexamined life, you’d be hard pressed to outdo Thomas Friedman holding forth on “Climate Change and the Arab Spring.” What’s still more disturbing is that Friedman’s maunderings—unlike the foregoing litany of intellectual failures—actually took place, and were recorded for posterity, during a panel event this February at the Center for American Progress, America’s most influential liberal think tank. The great globalizing muse of the New York Times op-ed page was joined on stage by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Princeton University professor and former State Department deputy to Hillary Clinton.

You may be assured that the trite speculations came fast, flat, and furious. Between numerous mentions of his 2008 book Hot, Flat, and Crowded (not to be confused with 2005’s The World Is Flat), Freidman offered a mix of insights, delivered with his trademark flair for anecdotage in the vein of a Mad Libs pamphlet. Friedman informed the audience, for example, that algebra is an Arabic word—and so clearly the challenge ahead for the tumultuous Arab world is to integrate algebra as well as Islam into its emerging governments. He then went on to sagely counsel the crowd that understanding the Islamic world requires examining ethnic and religious divisions, as opposed to more recent national rivalries—as though no one else had ever heard about the nearly 1,400-year-old Sunni-Shia split that emerged after Muhammad’s death.

The banalities were also interspersed, inevitably, with generous helpings of buzzwords. The world, you see, has gone in rapid-fire increments from being “connected” to “interconnected” to “interdependent.” And in a gratuitous show of his own high-tech interdependency, Friedman delivered his remarks with an open laptop balanced on his lap—a prop that he hardly glanced at during the ninety-minute event.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, likewise, wasted little time getting into the zeitgeisty swing of things. At one point she and Friedman nodded their heads in approval as moderator Michael Werz, a CAP senior fellow, cited an article Slaughter wrote two years ago in which she proposed that tennis, not chess, provided the better framework for viewing contemporary world politics, given that the weather and other random factors may affect the spin and pace of the ball being played.

Sadly, my research assistant Diego Arene-Morley,[*] who just completed his freshman year at Brown, decimated the analogy, noting that the choice of sport “was particularly poor, given that chess is regarded as a more complex and variable game than tennis, which is . . . simply back and forth.” At the event Slaughter herself appeared to concede that tennis was not the most appropriate metaphor and offered a new one. “We simply have to move from states to networks of many, many different actors,” she said. “I want to see the world the way the millennials see the world. They look at the world like the Internet, not a chess game.” Almost as if she knew that somewhere a college freshman would mock this argument as well, she quickly proposed yet another, saying that the “old world” was composed of billiard balls, and while there are still billiard balls out there, they’re now made of Legos.

Still, Friedman remained the principal fount of corporate-friendly twaddle. At one point he told the audience, evoking Socrates, “It can be dangerous to disagree with me, for one reason: I don’t know anything.” He responded to a question about the future of democracy with this bizarre soliloquy:

We need to do big hard things together. Because all things we have to do are hard and big, and you can only do them together. So when you don’t do big hard things together, what you get are suboptimal responses to every big hard thing, done with no due diligence at the eleventh hour, and that’s basically what our politics has become. So you look at everything that has happened in the last four years, I would argue that they are all suboptimal solutions cobbled together with no due diligence of what world are we in, what would be the right solution done at the eleventh hour, and, um, how long do we remain a great country when everything we do at the national level is suboptimal with no due diligence done at the eleventh hour?

How, indeed? But for our purposes, a better question would be: How did an organization like the Center for American Progress, which aggressively markets itself as the intellectual vanguard of a resurgent American liberalism, become so immersed in such nonsignifying management speak?

The Arab Spring panel, after all, was just one in a long string of CAP-sponsored policy gatherings. In late May, the think tank hosted “Unfinished Business: The Feminine Mystique at 50,” which looked at “the unfinished business of the women’s movement.” The event was introduced by Neera Tanden, CAP’s president and a columnist for The New Republic; moderated by Judith Warner, a onetime New York Times columnist and now a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for; and Gail Collins and Anna Quindlen, who are, respectively, current and former columnists for the New York Times. Evidently, the women’s movement’s real unfinished business is to ensure that every woman can be vouchsafed a column of her own—just like Thomas Friedman!

That event was held the day after a CAP event made the case for “Diverse Voices in Public Policy.”[**] Which is how the days and weeks and months pass at a think tank that has $44 million in its treasury and that on its website describes its driving aim thusly: “We develop a point of view and take a stand. We then build on that and develop bold new ideas.”

To understand just how Thomas Friedman, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Gail Collins have been repurposed as purveyors of bold new ideas, it helps to see how the world of liberal think tanks has been upended, ever so gently, by a steady onrush of corporate funding—and corporate-friendly policy agendas. Think tanks have always reflected relatively narrow elite opinion and were never entirely impartial, but the earliest were modeled on academic institutions. Brookings, the first, began in 1916 (as the Institute for Government Research) and subsequently billed its mission as “the fact-based study of national public policy issues.” During the Great Depression, its scholars took sides both for and against the New Deal. The Council on Foreign Relations began in New York five years after Brookings and, as author Peter Grose later wrote, sought to “guide the statecraft of policymakers” with in-depth reports prepared by “groups of knowledgeable specialists of differing ideological inclinations.”

An emerging, more aggressive perspective was prompted by the specter of economic stagflation and the twin political crises of the early 1970s, Vietnam and Watergate. In 1974 and 1975, top corporate officials convened annually under the auspices of still another ideas consortium called the Conference Board—but this time out, they didn’t feel quite so dispassionate about the policy-debate scene. Feeling pressured by then-powerful labor unions and the demands of what they saw as an ungrateful citizenry, the assembled CEOs feared a popular revolt might be imminent. “We have been hoist with our own petard,” one executive said at one conclave. “We have raised expectations that we can’t deliver on.” Another executive complained, “One man, one vote has undermined the power of business in all capitalist countries since World War II.”

In order to recapture politicians, intellectuals, and the media, corporations increased their Washington lobbying efforts and jacked up campaign contributions as well. Just as important, corporations shoveled cash into existing think tanks and established dozens of new ones. The Heritage Foundation began in 1973, and within a decade its annual budget topped $12 million. The American Enterprise Institute, which began life as a fairly nondescript business advocacy group, became more politically emboldened and saw its budget triple between 1975 and 1985. New conservative think tanks founded in the post-Watergate period included the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Over time, corporations also provided major support for think tanks aligned with Democrats, especially moderate ones. The Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) began in 1989 and received millions of dollars from sources such as the Tobacco Institute, Occidental Petroleum, and various Wall Street firms.

PPI was affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council, which had been founded to regain the White House by pulling the party in a more centrist direction. Bill Clinton was a charter member of the Council, and when he became president, PPI pumped out reams of studies in support of NAFTA, welfare reform, and other “New Democrat” priorities. In effect, Clinton and PPI stand at one end of an era, while Obama and CAP sit at the other—the era in question being that of the full corporate takeover of the Democratic Party and, by extension, American politics.

CAP’s founder is John Podesta, the former chief of staff to President Clinton who ran Barack Obama’s transition team following the 2008 election and became an informal adviser to the new president. Podesta is a former lobbyist, and it’s no exaggeration to say that influence-peddling is the family business. His brother, Tony, and sister-in-law, Heather, each head separate lobbying firms that are among the most powerful in Washington. In late 2011, Podesta stepped down as the think tank’s president (he remains as chair). He had good cause to think that his main mission at the helm of CAP had been accomplished: by 2012, and the onset of Obama’s second term, CAP had clearly emerged as the most influential think tank of the Obama era.

Neera Tanden, who served in both the Obama and Clinton administrations and, in between, as policy director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, replaced Podesta. Former Virginia congressman Tom Perriello heads up the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the group’s advocacy unit. There’s no real separation between the think tank and the fund—they operate out of the same offices and share personnel—but the latter is legally allowed to lobby and the former not, so this alliance gives CAP added power.

CAP periodically criticizes the White House, but effectively serves as a house organ of the Democratic Party, much as Pravda was to the Politburo during Soviet times. (To be fair to CAP, during the era of Brezhnev, as opposed to Stalin.) In an amazing break from script, Tanden last October told New York magazine, “Obama doesn’t call anyone, and he’s not close to almost anyone. It’s stunning that he’s in politics, because he really doesn’t like people.” She immediately apologized via Twitter, saying, “I was trying to say how President Obama, who I admire greatly, is a private person, but I deeply regret how I said it.” For anyone else at CAP, such a personal sideswipe at the premier grandee of the liberal Washington establishment would almost surely have been a firing offense.

CAP effectively serves as a house organ of the Democratic party, much as Pravda was to the Politburo during Soviet times.

It was also deeply out of character for the think tank’s carefully tended public image, which brings new meaning to the word banal. On its website, CAP explains that its mission is to “critique the policy that stems from conservative values, challenge the media to cover the issues that truly matter, and shape the national debate,” and cites “progressive pioneers” such as Teddy Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. However, when visitors to the site toggle over to the actual content of the group’s policy portfolio, they meet a barrage of platitudes that sound as if they were lifted directly from the collected works of Ronald Reagan. “As progressives, we believe America is a land of boundless opportunity, where people can better themselves, their children, their families, and their communities through education, hard work, and the freedom to climb the ladder of economic mobility,” CAP states. “We believe an open and effective government can champion the common good over narrow self-interest, harness the strength of our diversity, and secure the rights and safety of its people. And we believe our nation must always be a beacon of hope and strength to the rest of the world.”

Such self-advertised vacuity makes perfect sense for an institution like CAP, for the simple reason that these pious word clouds are also the standard argot of corporate America. CAP’s board and roster of scholars are stuffed with the most rancid elements of the Democratic Party, many of them Clinton administration veterans or key political supporters. Last December, it named Lawrence Summers, formerly Clinton’s treasury secretary and Obama’s National Economic Council director, as a distinguished senior fellow. “As our country continues to confront challenges to establishing economic growth that is more broadly shared, there are few thinkers with Larry’s insights, keen intellect, and policy creativity,” Tanden said at the time.

Summers was, of course, famously named by Time magazine in 1999 as one of the three members of “The Committee to Save the World,” along with Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan. They earned that title for pushing through the near complete deregulation of financial markets—which then worked, in fairly short order, to engineer the collapse of the global economy. (In a sort of sideline gambit of epic managerial incompetence, Summers also managed to squander hundreds of millions in endowment funds during his Bush-era tenure as president of Harvard, by putting together an enormous 2004 interest-rate swap predicated on a disastrous reading of market trends.)

Unlike his two superhero colleagues, Summers has since mildly repented for his worst deregulatory excesses and now calls for greater oversight of the financial industry and some limited government intervention in the private sector to spur recovery and growth. Of course, nothing in his revisionist policy playbook is disturbing enough to prevent him from continuing to make millions by consulting for and speaking to financial giants and hedge funds, and accepting perks such as free jet rides from Citigroup. (This firm, you may recall, was the first major merged financial titan of the post–Glass-Steagall age, which Summers’s pal Rubin matriculated back to after his own term as treasury secretary in the Clinton White House; Rubin, clearly determined to follow in Summers’s distinguished footsteps, nearly bankrupted the flailing investment bank before departing as a “senior counselor” in 2009 after pocketing more than $100 million.)

Another board member is Tom Daschle, the former U.S. Senate majority leader who had to withdraw his nomination as Obama’s secretary of health and human services because he cheated on his taxes (“naively,” as opposed to criminally, he claimed). Daschle has made millions since leaving public service as a “special adviser” on K Street and at a private equity firm.

Carol Browner, Clinton’s EPA head and Obama’s director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, also sits on CAP’s board. One of America’s premier greenwashers, Browner disclosed income of $1 million to $5 million in 2008 from Downey McGrath, whose partners include her husband, former congressman Tom Downey, and whose clients have included ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, and DuPont. Browner is now a founding partner at Albright Stonebridge Group, an international global strategy company led by Madeleine Albright—the onetime Clinton secretary of state who is also a CAP board member.

CAP’s parroting of the Democratic Party line reflects not only the collapse of the old Democratic New Deal coalition, which at least gave some voice to labor unions and the poor, but also the collapse of radical journalism. “What’s the point of having this superb military . . . if we can’t use it?” Albright once asked, and one might also wonder what’s the point of having an allegedly progressive media if its inbred male vanguard is made up of figures such as CAP-branded pundits Eric Alterman and Matthew Yglesias.[***] (Yglesias used to write for CAP’s ThinkProgress blog. Alterman is still a senior fellow there, which at least makes him less distinguished than Larry Summers.)

Any suggestion that CAP is in the business of airing dispassionate policy research and then letting the chips fall where they may for the sake of broadening the scope of intellectual debate in Washington should, of course, be greeted by a torrent of bitter laughter. A review of CAP’s research track record shows that the group’s work is dictated by two simple mainsprings: its obvious and overwhelming fealty to the Democratic Party, and the pursuit of corporate cash. For evidence of the former, one need look no further than the frenetically revolving door that connects the think tank and the Obama administration. At least forty CAP staffers have taken administration jobs since Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and at least eight administration officials moved to CAP after leaving their government posts. White House visitor logs show hundreds of meetings between CAP staffers and administration officials; CAP leaders Podesta and Tanden, not surprisingly, are among the most frequent White House visitors.

One former CAP staffer described “total synchronization” between the administration and the think tank, which he said routinely allowed Team Obama to vet reports prior to publication. “We were constantly in touch with the White House,” this person said. “Once I was on the phone with four White House lawyers who wanted to know what I was going to say [in an upcoming report].”

Another former staffer offered a somewhat more generous interpretation of the group’s tight alliance with the business wing of the Democratic Party. “Corporate influence is a huge part of American politics,” he said. “CAP is interested in politically achievable policy, and if no one is going to profit from it, it is not going to be achievable.” Translation: CAP is going to advance a self-styled progressive policy agenda by greeting the steady creep of plutocratic rule with a variation of “Everybody into the pool!”

It’s therefore no surprise that the other plank of the CAP research agenda—the eager acquisition of greater corporate backing—commands an increasing share of the group’s efforts. There’s little functional difference between the Democratic Party and the corporate world when it comes to running campaigns and elections; why should the promotion of policy debate be any different? In 2007, CAP launched the Business Alliance, which is a Membership Rewards–style program for big donors. Though CAP refuses to release any of these donors’ names, I obtained various lists (as I first disclosed in The Nation), and they have included Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, Wal-Mart, Comcast, Goldman Sachs, the Carlyle Group, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, GE, General Motors, Amgen, Pfizer, and Verizon.

For an edifying snapshot of how CAP’s fast-growing roster of funders and independent-minded progressive research can make for an awkward fit, consider the 2011 story of the think tank’s handling of a scandal in private-sector spying. Emails stolen by hackers revealed that lawyers for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce plotted with three private security companies—Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies, and HBGary Federal—to spy on the Chamber’s perceived enemies, which included activists, labor unions, and CAP. The think tank earned the Chamber’s wrath in part due to the reporting of Lee Fang, then at ThinkProgress, who had exposed elements of the Chamber’s shady foreign fundraising operations. “We are the best money can buy!” a Palantir executive wrote in one email gloating over the company’s planned Chamber-sponsored surveillance activities. “Dam it feels good to be a gangsta.”

CAP’s standing as a secret sluice gate for corporate money has not prevented it from attacking its enemies for doing the same thing.

The plotting ended when the emails were leaked—but the revelations were highly embarrassing to the security firms. Two of them soon made their way into CAP’s obliging orbit. In April 2011, two months after the story broke, Berico signed up Heather Podesta to lobby for it. By mid-2012, Palantir, a major contractor to U.S. intelligence agencies, had joined CAP’s Business Alliance. (CAP, for its part, maintains that it has erected a sturdy Chinese wall separating out its fundraising activities from its policy work. Here’s CAP spokesperson Andrea Purse: “The Center for American Progress is a non-partisan educational institution committed to progress on our country’s most pressing issues, including energy, national security, economic growth and opportunity, immigration, education, and health care. Our policy formation and analysis is independent, and we have advocated and will continue to advocate for ideas and policies that create progress for millions of Americans. We advance these ideas, no matter who is in power.”)

CAP’s standing as a secret sluice gate for corporate money has not prevented it from attacking its enemies for doing the same thing. In an article in Politico last May, Perriello and senior fellow Amy Rosenbaum bashed conservative groups for putting out TV attack ads without revealing that their funders were big companies that stood to gain from positions espoused by the ads. “This Orwellian twist was lost on most voters, because [thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission] there’s no obligation to disclose the donors behind these attacks,” they wrote. When it comes to courting corporate largesse, in other words, Orwellian twists are entirely in the eye of the beholder.

It’s hard to scientifically break down the precise ratio by which politics and money influence CAP’s positions on the issues of the day, but there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence. Consider, for example, CAP’s various stands on ballistic missile defense. In April 2008 the group reported that BMD systems were “increasingly obsolete” because “there is no imminent, new ballistic missile threat. The threat from a North Korean or Iranian long-range missile is still largely hypothetical. . . . A recent GAO report showed that Missile Defense programs are chronically over budget and behind schedule.”

But a year later, the group had completely reversed course. In June 2009, CAP released a statement saying, “The United States needs real capabilities to deal with real threats. It must therefore continue to research, develop, and deploy credible missile defenses to protect the United States homeland, allied forces operating overseas, and the territory of U.S. allies.” Of course, the basic assumptions behind the BMD program hadn’t shifted in any way during the intervening year; what had changed, quite obviously, was the partisan alliances around the White House. CAP issued its first assessment when George W. Bush was president and the second one during Barack Obama’s first term. Obama had not changed the White House’s line on the utility of the BMD program, and so, one can only infer, CAP was inspired to toe an entirely new line of its own.

Of course, it also helps that Lockheed, Boeing, and Raytheon, all members of the Business Alliance, are major BMD contractors. CAP’s 2009 statement specifically praised two highly controversial programs, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the Aegis system, on which all three companies are primary contractors or subcontractors. CAP’s “Idea of the Day” on January 4, 2010, was “Continue Funding for Reliable Missile Defense Systems,” which said that the Pentagon should “continue research and testing” the THAAD and the Aegis so they could “be perfected to provide the most cost-effective means of missile defense available.”

Likewise, the Obama administration’s strong pro-nuclear energy posture may help explain CAP’s curiously evolving (though still inconsistent) stance on that issue. It’s clear enough, at least, that the group’s complex divagations on nuclear power have also stemmed partly from CAP’s support for the corporate-inspired “cap-and-trade” bill on global warming that the then-Democratic Congress tried, and failed, to move out of committee in the heady early days of Obama’s first term. Cap-and-trade supporters agreed to include pro-nuclear language in the legislation in a pathetic effort to win GOP support. In July 2010, Senate majority leader Harry Reid announced that he would not even bring the bill up for a vote, producing the most humiliating (and hideously expensive) defeat for the environmental movement of modern time.

Even after the bill went down, CAP senior fellow Daniel Weiss was pitiably seeking to rally Republican troops to the lost cause. “Opposition to ‘cap-and-trade’ legislation to reduce global warming pollution is a common refrain among many Republican and a few Democratic officials this fall,” he wrote on the think tank’s website. “The program is derided as a ‘cap and tax’ that would drain voters’ wallets while bankrupting the nation. But ironically enough, the three most recent Republican presidents promoted cap and trade, including Ronald Reagan.” He then hailed Reagan’s achievements, noted that Sarah Palin and many Republicans “greatly admire the father of cap and trade,” and whined that nonetheless Palin still opposed “a global warming plan that would employ the innovative cap-and-trade system first created by President Reagan.”

At a cursory first glance, the group’s posture against the spread of nuclear energy could almost be mistaken for a principled stand. In July 2008, CAP published a piece at the group’s website called “10 Reasons Not to Invest in Nuclear Energy.” During congressional testimony that same month, senior fellow Joseph Romm said that nuclear power’s “own myriad limitations will constrain its growth” and that it was “simply not a near-term, cost-effective solution to our climate problem.”

CAP continued to criticize nuclear power after Obama took office. In March 2010, it posted another paper on its website, “Protecting Taxpayers from a Financial Meltdown.” The report drew a strong rebuke from the Nuclear Energy Institute, which accused the think tank of “misstatements, unsubstantiated estimates, and inaccurate descriptions of nuclear construction.”

Yet CAP’s opposition to nuclear power has softened considerably at times, even after cap and trade was shot down. Last February 9, the day the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted approval for the construction of new nuclear plants in Georgia, CNN quoted Richard Caperton, director of CAP’s Clean Energy Investment program, as saying, “Moving away from fossil fuels in order to address climate change is the biggest challenge facing our power sector, and safe nuclear power will be an important part of that solution.” CAP released a statement by Caperton the same day saying that completing the plants “would be a critical step in proving that nuclear power can continue to serve as a leading source of low-carbon power.”

In October, CAP hosted a conversation with Allison Macfarlane, chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Nuclear power is our nation’s largest low-carbon power source,” read CAP’s invitation to the event. “Over the last two decades, U.S. nuclear plant operators have shown an excellent record of operational safety and have greatly increased the operational performance of reactors.” The pro-nukes positions in the post-cap-and-trade phase of policymaking might well have something to do with the significant stakes in nuclear energy shared among at least half a dozen Business Alliance members: GE, Pacific Gas Electric, Duke Energy, American Electric Power, Constellation Energy, and Xcel Energy. It’s a safe bet, at any rate, that this powerful group of funders has been quite pleased to see the recent boilerplate pro-nuclear PR copy going out under CAP’s letterhead.

Thus, it seems, CAP really is the perfect liberal think tank for the age of Obama, when the core policy options and alliances that shape American politics are simply dictated by the flow of cash. The former staffer who spoke with me about CAP’s frequent communications with the Obama White House succinctly summed up the gnat-straining fate of the multimillion-dollar think tank. “They totally bought into the Obama vision, and he had no vision,” he said. “When Obama was progressive and talked about the stimulus, they were for that, and when he cut a deal with Boehner, they were for that. They don’t stand for anything themselves.” Except, it seems, for the moneyed regurgitation of the current Democratic mush.


[*] Arene-Morley did not attend the event but watched a video of it. Despite having only recently been hired and receiving a relatively decent wage, Arene-Morley expressed great bitterness and seemed prepared to quit when I asked him to watch a Friedman video.

[**] Which did at least feature a diverse panel and only one political consultant, Patricia Campos-Medina of Campos Strategies Groups. The other panelists were Kumar Rao of the Bronx Defenders, Christine Soyong Harley of the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations, and Ramatu Bangura of the Sauti Yetu Center for African Women and Families.

[***] This swaggering pseudo-liberal contrarian is clearly angling to get Thomas Friedman’s column when the great man retires and his mustache is put on display at the Smithsonian; Yglesias’s recent columns have praised lobbying-drafted legislation, the abolition of the corporate income tax, and Third World factory collapses (as an unfortunate but inevitable cost of global economic efficiencies).