STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Send out an e-mail on this. The politics of the left is changing. For years, Democrats and the progressive groups that supported them looked with envy at the infrastructure that conservatives had built - foundations, think tanks, media outlets and advocacy groups. What they saw was a disciplined apparatus working together to advance a conservative agenda. Over the past few years, liberal groups have developed a new infrastructure of their own. Call it, if you like, a vast left-wing conspiracy.
Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON: No one did more to inspire Democrats to create institutions to influence the political debate than Hillary Clinton. In the late '90s, during the Monica Lewinski scandal, she famously accused a vast right-wing conspiracy of attacking her husband. Years later, she was still talking about it.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): I do know a little bit about the vast right-wing conspiracy.
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LIASSON: That's Senator Clinton in 2004, describing the power of the right to a group of liberal activists.
Sen. CLINTON: It happened because people with a very particular point of view. They didn't like labor unions. They didn't like civil rights. They didn't like women's rights. They came together, literally, starting 50 years ago. They created think tanks. They invested in endowed professorships. They'd set up other media outlets. And so they, very slowly but surely, tried to change American politics. And you've got to give them credit. They've done a god job.
LIASSON: Clinton encouraged progressives to develop their own institutions to counteract the influence of the right. At around the same time she was making that speech, a Democratic activist named Simon Rosenberg was traveling the country, showing wealthy liberal donors a PowerPoint presentation called "The Conservative Message Machine's Money Matrix." The title was a real tongue twister, but it turned out to be a great sales pitch for Rosenberg - a schematic look at how the conservative movement functioned, from the Heritage Foundation to the NRA.
Mr. SIMON ROSENBERG (Democratic Activist): I think whether it's a conspiracy or just good organization, what's remarkable is that the conservatives really invested and built something very powerful to advance their agenda. And now we've woken up, I think, on our side, and started to use some of the same tactics and tools that they used to build our own version of that.
LIASSON: In the past four years, dozens of new progressive think tanks, media watchdog groups and grassroots organizations have been created. But in one arena, the left had trouble gaining a foothold.
(Soundbite of radio show, "The Rush Limbaugh Show")
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Mr. RUSH LIMBAUGH (Talk Radio Host): Thank you. Thank you. Welcome back. (unintelligible) meeting and surpassing all audience expectations.
LIASSON: Talk radio, whose dominant voice is Rush Limbaugh, remains a powerful organizing tool for conservatives. But progressives have something else they think can match talk radio's clout: the Internet. The Web sites of Democratic political candidates and causes get hundreds of thousands more visitors than their conservative counterparts. It's not clear exactly why progressives should have an edge on the Web - which is, after all, just a method of communication open to everyone. Rosenberg thinks it's because Democrats are more comfortable with the anarchy of the Internet.
Mr. ROSENBERG: What's happened is that culture of debate, discourse, of more quality, in some ways fits the Democratic culture and the Republican culture. So the way the Internet is evolving seems to fit this sort of discordant, non-hierarchical view of the Democrats.
LIASSON: In addition to raising tons of money, liberal bloggers have become a powerful constituency inside the Democratic Party. Democratic congressional leaders like Senator Harry Reid consult with them regularly, just as he would with leaders of labor unions or civil rights groups. Ask blogger Matt Stoller, who writes on the Web site MyDD about the liberal net root's political victories, and he has a ready list. He says the blogs help defeat pro-war Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman in his 2006 primary last year. They kept alive the story about the U.S. attorney firings. Bloggers helped push the George Allen macaca controversy last year. And, says Stoller, the list goes on.
Mr. MATT STOLLER (Blogger, MyDD): Fox News is not going to host a Democratic presidential debate this cycle. Howard Dean is now the DNC chair, and a bunch of members of Congress actually were recruited - their initial base of funding was liberal blogs.
LIASSON: The liberal blogs also helped push Democrats in Congress to be more confrontational and partisan in their dealings with the White House. But ask Matt Stoller to name a political hero, and he names a conservative: Grover Norquist, the activist and lobbyist.
Mr. STOLLER: The right is serious about power. The right is serious about using power to create the society that they want to create. And I respect that. In -where I think Grover Norquist does exceptionally well is in building coalitions and trying to think long term about where he wants the country to go and bringing together people who want to take it in that same direction.
LIASSON: Norquist himself finds something ironic about the respect he gets from the left. He remembers the 1970s, when Conservative think tanks like Heritage were started in direct response to liberal institutions like Brookings.
Mr. STOLLER: They were mirroring what they'd seen the left do, and now you have that come full circle. So when some of the progressives point to the coalition work that I do, it's flattering.
LIASSON: Now progressives are flattering Norquist by imitation. His Wednesday meeting under the umbrella of Americans for Tax Reform, unites home schoolers, gun rights advocates and abortion opponents around the Conservative agenda. Now, every week, just around the corner from Norquist's office in Washington, a group of progressive activists are doing something very similar.
Ms. KATIE HEINS (Let Justice Roll): Katie Heins from Let Justice Roll.
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Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible)
Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible)
Unidentified Man #2: (unintelligible)
Unidentified Man #1: Anyone else?
LIASSON: The host group for this weekly liberal meeting and conference call has one of those innocuous sounding Astro Turf names: Change American Now.
Unidentified Man #1: We're going to move right along here, get on to the kind of the main of events, the July 24th minimum wage celebration event. Brad, why don't you kick it off...
LIASSON: Brad is Brad Woodhouse, a veteran Democratic activist. His group is called Americans United for Change. And he says while there always were liberal groups lobbying in Washington on the environment or civil rights or labor issues, they've never worked in harmony the way they do now.
Mr. BRAD WOODHOUSE (Democratic Activist, Americans United for Change): There are a lot of groups on this call today that don't care that much about minimum wage, but they see now the value in having all in to push a progressive agenda forward. Before, it's a cacophony of voices working on a cacophony of issues. Now we're saying let's take all of this that we have consensus on and support the Democratic leadership on the hill.
LIASSON: If progressive activists are working hard to match the conservative's discipline and unity, they're also working to match another of the right's advantages. The core conservative ideology, Woodhouse says, was simple and straightforward. Lower taxes, smaller government, strong defense. And for a long time, it galvanized a majority. Progressives, he says, were all over the map. But now, Woodhouse believes there is something they all can agree on.
Mr. WOODHOUSE: It's a progressive ideology that believes that done right, government can provide big solutions to big things. We're not shy about saying that government has a very significant role to play.
LIASSON: That might not be a clarion call, but coupled with outrage over the Iraq war, anger at George W. Bush and a burning desire to elect Democrats, it's just enough for the new, vast left-wing conspiracy.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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