Progressives Take a Page from Conservative Networks

Progressives are taking a page from conservative politicians and are creating and supporting progressive think tanks, training young activists, and building a progressive network.

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This has been the summer of the Democrats' discontent. They're stuck deeper in minority party status than at any time since the early 1930s. Progressive leaders are wondering just how to get back on track. NPR's Peter Overby reports they've been asking this question for years, but things are so bad, they may finally be doing something about it.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

One sign of progressive stirrings came this week in Seattle, the kick-off of a new organization called PLAN, the Progressive Legislative Action Network. Its mission: Develop policies for state lawmakers who favor progressive politics. It's such a good idea, the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, has been doing it for conservatives since the 1970s.

State Senator JACKIE SPEIER (Democrat, California): Move over, ALEC. Here comes PLAN.

(Soundbite of applause)

OVERBY: So progressives, such as California State Senator Jackie Speier, are once again playing catch-up. PLAN's co-chairman, David Sirota, says they need to start thinking like a movement.

Mr. DAVID SIROTA (Co-Chairman, PLAN): And that requires different groups on the progressive side to come together and really understand and realize how to actually fight and win on a broad-based progressive agenda instead of single-issue politics.

OVERBY: One current bit of liberal conventional wisdom: Republicans have a simple message: Stronger defense, smaller government, lower taxes, family values, while too often the Democratic message has sounded more like this.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Earlier today, I spoke to President Bush and I offered him our...

Senator TOM DASCHLE (Democrat, South Dakota): Earlier today I called John Thune to congratulate him.

Vice President AL GORE: I know that many of my supporters are disappointed. I am, too.

OVERBY: This summer's drive to organize isn't about precisely what the progressive message should be; it's about building an infrastructure that will produce and advance clear messages, something the conservatives started doing more than 30 years ago. In 1971, future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell laid out a grand strategy in a memo to an official at the US Chamber of Commerce. Powell wrote that the free enterprise system was under broad attack. He proposed a counterattack on college campuses and in the media, in Congress and the courts, all aimed at making public opinion and political attitudes more pro-business. In the years that followed, foundations and individual donors organized and began writing checks. New think tanks benefited, from the big-budget Heritage Foundation to small think tanks in the States, so did institutions to train young activists and to monitor the news media.

Now progressives have their own version of the Powell memo. This time it's a PowerPoint demonstration put together by Rob Stein.

Mr. ROB STEIN: I woke up after the 2002 election and went downstairs and read the newspaper and said, `Oh, my goodness. We have a one-party country.'

OVERBY: Stein resembles Bill Clinton with curly hair. He's a Democratic operative turned investment banker now turned progressive proselytizer. He's sitting in the rather barren office of his new organization, the Democracy Alliance. It's across the Potomac from Washington. More about the alliance in a minute. Stein recalls how he set about analyzing the tax-exempt organizations that power the conservative movement.

Mr. STEIN: Think tanks, policy centers, legal advocacy groups, media monitoring groups, and the aggregate annual budget of these 80 organizations is in excess of $400 million.

OVERBY: Stein put his findings into the PowerPoint. Last summer he started shopping it around to Democratic and progressive leaders. He's still refining it, but the message remains the same: Progressives need to start building their own big network.

Now this idea has been bandied about after every major Democratic defeat. Stein says the party stays too focused on the next election.

Mr. STEIN: This is not about winning 2006, and this is not even really about the near term. This is making a commitment to building a sustainable progressive majority in America.

OVERBY: Which takes money. Stein's Democracy Alliance is bringing big donors together so they can coordinate their contributions more effectively. Other wealthy liberals have started organizing the same way. Progressives have been talking about doing this literally for years. There's a reason why it finally seems to be happening now, because they didn't need to do it before. The Democratic Party dominated politics from Franklin Roosevelt's first term in the 1930s until just recently. Progressive philosophy dominated the political debate, no matter which party was in the White House. When a liberal policy needed to be hatched and popularized, powerful Democratic lawmakers or even a Democratic president would do it. Then the Democrats lost Congress in 1994 and the White House in 2000. In 2004, things just got worse for them. Simon Rosenberg is president of the New Democrat Network in Washington.

Mr. SIMON ROSENBERG (President, New Democrat Network): There's virtually no one alive in a leadership position for Democrats who have faced the enormous Republican political machine that they have today. And so I think we are in unprecedented circumstances.

OVERBY: And while the liberals' infrastructure slipped away from them, the conservative network just got stronger.

Ms. NANCY BOCSKOR (Republican Fund-raising Consultant): Yes, a lot of PACs tend to support the incumbent, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to if you have a groundswell of support from back home.

OVERBY: That's Nancy Bocskor, one of the Republicans' premier fund-raising consultants. She's teaching a class at the Leadership Institute. That's a non-profit in Arlington, Virginia, part of the network of conservative organizations. In 26 years, the institute claims to have trained 44,000 conservative political operatives. Its founder, Morton Blackwell, is still running it.

Mr. MORTON BLACKWELL (Founder, Leadership Institute): It takes a long time usually between when a person gets trained and when they have maximum effectiveness. In March of 1970, I trained a 19-year-old from Utah. That fellow's name was Karl Rove.

OVERBY: Blackwell says he never heard of the Lewis Powell memo. He started with Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign in 1964. Goldwater lost by a landslide, but many of his campaign workers kept in touch. They started organizing. Now Blackwell's building organizations on college campuses. The Leadership Institute created some 200 of them by the fall of 2004. Over the next two semesters, the number doubled. So if progressives spend a few million dollars reaching out to college kids, Blackwell says he isn't worried.

Mr. BLACKWELL: Because there are literally billions of dollars that are funding leftists who are on campus indoctrinating students.

OVERBY: But now he's facing a new progressive counterpart. Campus Progress is part of the 22-month-old Center For American Progress, which itself fills a role rather like The Heritage Foundation. Last month Campus Progress held a student conference in Washington. The main speaker was Bill Clinton. He talked about a friend of his, an evangelical preacher who last year ended up voting for President Bush. Clinton asked him why.

Former President BILL CLINTON: And he said--listen to this. Everyone of you listen to this. He said, `Because ever since you left, nobody in your party talks to us anymore.' He said, `Bill, you can't vote for somebody that doesn't talk to you.' You think about that.

(Soundbite of applause)

OVERBY: The conference drew 800 students, many of them came from the South and Rocky Mountain West, not places where progressive ideas have been well-received lately but perhaps where new progressive organizations will try to start their long march back in national politics.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

STAMBERG: This is NPR News.

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