Can Democrats get smart?

Rich liberals, fed up with losing, are spending big bucks to create think tanks and training programs. Their goal isn't just to beat Bush, but to remake the American political landscape.

Published August 22, 2005 1:38PM (EDT)

"Devastated" does not do it justice. The day after the last presidential election, the millionaires and billionaires who fund progressive politics awoke to find their historic efforts had fallen flat. They had thrown small fortunes and thousands of work hours into the battle to defeat President Bush, blitzed swing states with television ads, placed millions of phone calls, and recruited enough Election Day workers to fill a small city. And yet George W. Bush won in a walk, increasing his margin of victory with gains in key demographics like black and Hispanic voters. In the House and the Senate, the GOP expanded its majority.

"We kind of pulled the covers up over our heads for a while," said Deborah Rappaport, who, with her venture capitalist husband, Andrew, funded several liberal 527 groups. Several of the largest liberal groups, like America Coming Together, closed up shop, merged or downsized. Activists polished their résumés. The founders of called themselves "heartbroken." The billionaire financier George Soros, who gave more than $25 million to the effort, admitted, "Obviously, I am distressed."

Liberal money was down for the count, but only temporarily. Now, nearly a year after their defeat at the polls, wealthy liberals are again pulling out their checkbooks.

But this time, they are looking beyond the midterm elections in 2006 or the presidential showdown in 2008. Dozens of the richest people in America have banded together to develop a new, permanent network of progressive organizations that will, they hope, fundamentally alter the political direction of the country. Their idea is to create a sort of venture capital firm for progressive philanthropy, a new organization they call the Democracy Alliance. The Alliance will do very little substantive work itself. Rather it will direct six- and seven-figure donations to those groups -- whether they are think tanks, media outlets, or training programs for young liberal leaders -- that show the most promise.

"The Democrats for a long time have been fixed on the next election or the election after that," says Peter L. Buttenweiser, an heir to the Lehman Brothers securities fortune and one of the Democratic Party's most generous donors. "This is the first concerted effort to build the infrastructure of the progressive party in a way that replicates what the right has been doing for a long time."

The effort has already attracted a group of about 80 wealthy donors who hope to eventually raise upward of $200 million for the cause. But their work has so far been kept a close secret. Eight months after forming, the Alliance has almost no public profile. It has yet to hold a press conference or issue a press release. There is nothing on its Web site, and its phone number and address, on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, Va., are unlisted. The group's new office space remains unadorned, with blank walls in the conference room, and the staff roster counts less than a dozen employees, not including outside consultants like Mike McCurry, one of Bill Clinton's former press secretaries.

Liberal activists are nonetheless abuzz with expectation, noting the firepower of the donors who have already signed up. "They will really be the first significant progressive venture capital organization that I know of," says Jon Cowan, president of Third Way, an upstart think tank, who is hoping for Alliance money. "Nobody does this." Members of the Alliance include billionaires like George Soros and his son Jonathan, former Rockefeller Family Fund president Anne Bartley, San Francisco Bay Area donors Susie and Mark Buell, Hollywood director Rob Reiner, Taco Bell heir Rob McKay (who, full disclosure, is also a member of Salon's board), as well as New York financiers like Steven Gluckstern. "These are not media-hungry people," says one person close to the Alliance. "They are serious doer types."

By coordinating their efforts, donors hope to create institutions outside the Democratic Party that are not limited to single issues like abortion, the environment or civil rights. "I think our side suffers a little too much from our single-issue focus," says David Sirota, founder of the Progressive Legislative Action Network, who hopes to attract Alliance funding. "The Democracy Alliance can play a very important role in developing the pan-issue ideological organizations that will be focused on winning the battle for American hearts and minds."

The leader of the Alliance is Rob Stein, a former aide to the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton Commerce Department. As a rule, he is reluctant to talk with the press about details. "The Democracy Alliance," he told Salon in a message relayed through an intermediary, "is working closely with donors and organizations who represent the full spectrum of progressive thought and who are committed to building robust financially secure institutions capable of consistently promoting a coherent set of ideas, policies and messages."

But if the details of Stein's current plans remain under wraps, his raison d'être is front and center. During the last election season, Stein became a celebrated guru for deep-pocketed donors after touring dinner parties and fundraisers around the country with an alliterative PowerPoint presentation called "The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix." In a set of electronic slides, which he has yet to put to paper, he laid out a historical analysis that has since become orthodoxy among Beltway Democratic consultants and organizations. According to Stein's historical narrative, a small group of conservative foundations in the 1960s and '70s are largely responsible for the conservative revolution that has upended American politics in the last decade.

The Bradley, Olin and Sarah Scaife foundations, among others, backed a group of conservative legal, academic and political organizations, like the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society. These groups, working outside the GOP, developed the conservative ideas and leaders who now dominate the political spectrum. "We had been in power so long that we didn't really need an alternative infrastructure," explains Simon Rosenberg, the leader of the New Democratic Network and an early backer of Stein's work. "We are now facing Republicans with more power than at any point since the 1920s."

For much of the last century, the analysis goes, Democrats and progressives did not need an outside infrastructure to carry their political messages. Instead, they could depend on three pillars of power that have since atrophied: the labor movement, the urban political machines, and the Democratic majority in Congress. Without this base support, the party found itself adrift. "What we were left with as our front line groups were the interest groups and they weren't meant for that," says Rosenberg, referring to the civil rights, environmental, and consumer rights groups that were designed to lobby a more receptive Congress. "If we want to win again, we will have to build a more efficient way to communicate our message."

Even before Stein began touring with his PowerPoint presentation, similar arguments had been used to justify founding several new liberal organizations like the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank run by former Clinton advisor John Podesta, and Media Matters, a watchdog of conservative media run by David Brock, a former right-wing journalist.

Conservative philanthropists and strategists have been watching the Alliance efforts with some degree of curiosity, skeptical that liberals will be able to replicate their own accomplishments. "Conservatives always had assumed that liberals had this all down pat," says Robert Huberty, a veteran of the Heritage Foundation who now studies liberal philanthropy at the conservative Capital Research Center. "It's funny now to read the articles where the liberals are saying, 'Oh yes, the conservatives have been doing this for 40 years now.' " Others, like James Piereson, who directed giving at the Olin Foundation, point to what he sees as a lack of clear direction on the left, a problem that more money will not automatically solve. "I think the problem is one of ideas," he said. "What is the end? Where are they going?"

Liberal donors to the Alliance blame some of the current lack of direction on the Democratic Party, which has found itself outmatched by the GOP in nearly every election since 1994. "Most of us are saying, I want to define a battle that I can fight and win," says one Alliance donor, who asked to remain anonymous. At the same time, campaign finance reform has forced wealthy individuals to rethink how they give their money to political causes. "Friends would say to us, we used to just write a big check to the party and we can't do that anymore," says Deborah Rappaport, who has worked with Stein but is not a part of the Alliance. "So what should we do?"

After Labor Day, Rappaport hopes to make her own contribution to the discussion by launching a new Web site, dubbed the New Progressive Coalition, that will give donors a one-stop resource for evaluating worthy groups and individuals working to advance the progressive cause. The site, which will require a $100 membership fee, will offer advice to donors, and will eventually be matched by a series of donor fairs Rappaport is helping to plan. "We are looking at this as something that is compatible" with the Alliance, she said. "We're looking to build from the bottom-up model and my hope is that we meet in the middle."

The Alliance, on the other hand, takes a decidedly top-down approach. In April, the group met for the first time at a private retreat in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Soros ran a question and answer session with donors. Experts presented data on the spending and structure of conservative think tanks, and the political impact of bloggers. "The quality of the people who were gathered together in Scottsdale was breathtaking," says the Alliance donor, who did not mention their other benefit: a massive net worth.

People close to the Alliance say the group plans to meet again in the coming months to hear reports from task forces that have been established to research four broad areas of possible investment: ideas, media, leadership and civic engagement. This could lead to funding all manner of new or expanded think tanks, media outlets, leadership training programs, as well as programs to organize the grass roots at the state and national levels.

In the meantime, progressive activists are pointing to recent news cycles for evidence of the power a progressive infrastructure could provide. Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen Iraqi war veteran, has come to dominate the media with a well-timed personal story. But behind the scenes, her message has been amplified, honed and processed through a loose network of progressive organizations. Groups like the Ben and Jerry-backed firm True Majority hired public relations professionals to handle her media calls. The liberal Air America made her a regular feature on the radio. and Code Pink, two antiwar groups, helped spread the word through their activist bases, and liberal bloggers have been organized en masse. Sheehan posted her own blog at Huffington Post. Just a few years ago, none of these organizations existed in their current forms.

But donors emphasize that the Alliance is not focused on any short-term goals like reducing U.S. military involvement in Iraq. They want to remake the political discussion in America over the long haul. "It takes a lot of time," says Lewis B. Cullman, a New York financier who gives millions to progressive causes and hopes to help the Alliance. "I'm 86 years old. Maybe you will be here when it happens, but I won't."

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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