October 18, 2005
Democratic Think Tank Mixes Ideas With Bush-Bashing

By Mort Kondracke

Behind a sulfurous fog of anti-Bush diatribes, there is a Democratic new-idea factory operating at the Center for American Progress.

It's ridiculous that CAP labels itself a "nonpartisan" think tank. It's manned almost exclusively by Democrats. It was created and is headed by Bill Clinton's high-energy former White House chief of staff, John Podesta. And practically every pronouncement it makes, even on the ideas front, is couched in anti-Bush vituperation.

For instance, a thoughtful CAP report proposing a new U.S. national security strategy called "Integrated Power" says in its executive summary that because of President Bush, "our military is weaker, many of our historic alliances are frayed, our Treasury is depleted, Osama Bin Laden remains at large and our tarnished reputation abroad has diminished our capacity to exercise moral leadership."

That could have been said by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 or on any afternoon by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). In fact, it was written by Lawrence Korb, a Defense Department official in the first Reagan administration and the CAP's main claim to bipartisanship, and former Clinton White House aide Bob Boorstin.

The report advocates a foreign policy that combines "hard" military power - an increase of 86,000 active duty personnel and a doubling of Special Forces - with more attention to "soft" power, including alliance-building, poverty-fighting and dismantling nuclear arsenals.

The report also rules out Bush's "discredited doctrine of preventive war," as in Iraq, but does threaten "decisive military action" if Iran and North Korea were to export nuclear weapons.

Korb and Brian Katulis, another former Clinton aide, recently published a plan for phased total withdrawal ("redeployment") from Iraq by the end of 2007 - an idea that gives Democrats a responsible answer to the question, "OK, what's your alternative to Bush policy?"

Of course, Korb and Katulis devoted half their report to denouncing Bush. And Podesta recently joined the Democratic claque declaring Iraq a "quagmire."

Podesta founded the CAP in October 2003, arguing that Democrats needed an alternative to the GOP's ideas factories, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. In just two years, he's built the CAP into a $15 million-a-year operation with 100 employees, including 50-odd senior officials and experts who produce reports and critiques.

Jennifer Palmieri, the CAP's spokeswoman and former press secretary of the presidential campaign of former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), said, "We are ideological, but we're not partisan. We are liberal. We lean to the left the way Heritage and AEI lean to the right. But we don't say, 'Vote for this candidate or against that one.'"

That's true, but the CAP is certainly politically edgier than Heritage, AEI or that former locus of Democrats-in-exile, the Brookings Institution. None of them spends anywhere near as much energy denouncing the adversary as the CAP does.

And, the CAP's most visible single product, "Progress Report," a daily e-mail, is nearly 100 percent devoted to talking points that shred Bush and other Republicans.

"Progress Report" is one project of the CAP's 501(c)(4) political "education" arm, the Progress Action Fund, that Podesta says accounts for only 15 percent of the CAP's total budget. The CAP itself is a 501(c)(3) tax-deductible charity.

To its credit, the CAP is producing some arresting and politically attractive ideas that could help the Democratic Party move past its penchant for negativism and offer a new vision for the country.

A key one is tax reform that would raise $500 billion more revenue over 10 years than under present Bush policy, cut taxes for 70 percent of households and make the tax code simpler and more fair.

The plan, fashioned by former Edwards aide Robert Gordon and Ph.D. John Irons, includes taxing all income, whether from labor or investments, at the same rates; reducing the number of tax brackets from six to three; eliminating employee-paid payroll taxes; and significantly raising taxes for the well-off.

Republicans will surely howl at the idea that those who earn more than $120,000 a year would pay the top tax rate of 39.6 percent and that capital gains and dividends could be taxed at that rate instead of the current 15 percent.

Irons and Gordon say, however, that with payroll taxes eliminated, most taxpayers in the $100,000 to $200,000 income range would have their taxes cut and only those making more than $200,000 would have their taxes raised, with the biggest increases going to those who earn more than $1 million.

The CAP also has a plan for universal health insurance, drafted by former Clinton White House aide Jeanne Lambrew, that would knit together existing government and private plans and give the uninsured and businesses the option of joining the Federal Employee Health Benefit system. The federal government would relieve employers of insurance costs for preventive care. Low-income people would get an insurance subsidy. The total cost would be $100 billion to $160 billion a year, financed with a new value-added tax of 3 percent or 4 percent, with food and medicine exempted.

The CAP also has an energy-independence plan designed to cut U.S. oil consumption (now 20 million barrels a day) by 2.5 million barrels by 2012, mostly by converting agricultural wastes and grasses to ethanol. Another plan would relieve U.S. auto companies of their health insurance burdens in return for investments in hybrid technology.

One rap on the CAP is that, for all the ex-Clinton people around, it's developed few pioneering, "third way" ideas such as Clinton's welfare reform.

One exception might be in education policy, where a plan written by Gordon suggests merit pay for teachers - an idea loathed by the National Education Association - as well as voluntary national academic standards, lengthening the school day and school year and rigorous assessment. The plan was praised by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, although it does not go so far as to recommend tuition vouchers that could liberate poor children from nonperforming schools.

The CAP also has interesting, if predictable, ideas for post-Hurricane Katrina development of the Gulf Coast, including massive employment of local residents (at prevailing union wage rates, of course), with built-in job training and efforts to scatter low-income housing throughout communities.

Podesta believes that Katrina marks a "tectonic shift" for U.S. politics, revealing "the bankruptcy of conservative ideology and the government it has produced" and creating an opportunity for "a new progressive movement" to assert itself. He means to give "progressives" - read "liberals" - the ideas to do the job, as the CAP stokes them with lots of invective against the enemy.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.

Mort Kondracke

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