The Homeless Democrats

Pity the poor Clinton policy wonks who have nowhere to go.

Players cut from the NBA can go play in Europe. Yesterday’s hit-makers can croon in Las Vegas lounges. But what of those poor Democrats who suddenly find themselves outside the iron gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. looking in? Think tanks? Think again.

Instead, it is the party of limited government—the Republicans—that offers almost limitless policymaking resources to its unemployed policy wonks. The GOP’s well-financed network of think tanks has sustained the conservatives in exile these past eight years, just as it laid the groundwork for the rise of Reagan himself.

Democrats failed to develop any sort of farm system for its displaced wonks because they didn’t need one. With only a few interruptions over the last half-century, Democrats controlled that domed think tank up on Capitol Hill, while academia served as a reliable refuge and idea generator. But now, Democrats are without a home. Indeed, one way to explain the party’s post-election drift is that the people who best understand the intersection of policy and politics—those most able to craft a Democratic response to Bush—are scattered to the wind.

Don’t get me wrong. Packs of out-of-work Clintonistas aren’t roving from one Washington, D.C., Starbucks to another, desperately waiting for that page from the White House Signal Operator that will never come. Many have joined the various lobby shops, PR firms, and consulting firms. But for those who don’t want to throw away their years of serious governing experience, there are few options.

Take Chris Jennings, the undisputed guru of Democratic health-care policy; or Paul Weinstein, a longtime Clinton policy hand, who ended up as a senior adviser to Al Gore. Both already did time on the Hill and could easily move to the private sector. Right now, their best chance to stay in the policy game is to join a special interest advocacy group or go the free-lance consulting route.

But what these options can’t offer them, or the party, is the critical mass of people that understands policy in a political way. Advocacy think tanks—the foremost being the conservative Heritage Foundation—work so well because they bring policy, political, and communications people together all under one roof. They rapidly respond to the other side’s message of the day. They develop policy alternatives. And they actively sell both to the media and to allies in government.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s how the Clinton White House was organized. Clinton and Gore, the first all-wonk ticket in American history, turned the White House into one large think tank. Polling, policy, and politics were intertwined into a seamless web of practical governance. It was, as one senior Clinton policy official (too modest to be quoted by name) pointed out, a “conglomerate of skills.”

When Republicans lost the White House in 1992, an infrastructure was in place to house the GOP in exile and plot its return. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) expanded to bring on five senior Bush administration officials, including Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Michael Boskin, as well as Dick and Lynne Cheney. The Cato Institute opened its new $14 million headquarters, a gleaming glass temple to libertarianism. Meanwhile, as the established think tanks bulked up, Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett (already a Heritage fellow), Vin Weber, and Jeanne Kirkpatrick set up Empower America.

Since then, conservative think tanks have enjoyed phenomenal growth. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy estimates that, as a group, right-wing think tanks spent more than $1 billion in the ‘90s, with Cato, AEI, and Heritage leading the way. Still, almost half of this growth was from scores of smaller think tanks that sprang up not just in Washington but all over the country. They fought the daily partisan battles these past eight years while preparing a new generation of conservatives, a group that’s now staffing the Bush-Cheney administration.

Democrats are not without affiliated think tanks. The labor-backed Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is gearing up, and the New Democrats have welcomed Bruce Reed, Clinton’s top domestic policy adviser, back to the Democratic Leadership Council and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI). At the same time, the venerable Brookings Institution—seen as the Democratic answer to AEI and Heritage—has tapped former Cabinet Secretaries Lawrence Summers and Donna Shalala, Clinton economic adviser Gene Sperling, welfare expert Andrea Kane, and Treasury official Michael Barr.

Yet Summers is the only one to get a permanent slot, and by design, Brookings is not built for partisan politics. Its Web address says it all: www.brookings.edu. Dot-edu, you’ll notice, not dot-org. Brookings fashions itself a university without students, producing book-length studies that meet the highest standards of rigorous academic research. Indeed, it’s so eager to appear nonpartisan that its current president is a Republican.

What’s left for Democrats? Think tanks without the firepower to match their conservative counterparts. AEI alone has more researchers and policy experts on staff and in house than PPI, EPI, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities combined. The annual budget of Cato could keep any one of these Democratic think tanks fully funded until 2004. More important, Republicans on the Hill actually pay attention to these think tanks, seeing them as indispensable to the GOP.

The roots of this intellectual missile gap lie not only in the Democratic loss of Congress, but also in a transformed academia that is now too professionalized and marginalized to accommodate the out-of-work governing class. First, the professionalization of academia has made a Ph.D. mandatory to get a tenure-track job and academic publishing the key to keeping it. At the same time, there are too many doctorates chasing too few jobs. Even Al Gore had to settle for a visiting professorship in Columbia University’s journalism school. The graduate-degree-less Gore can pretty much forget about the presidency of Harvard.

Second, even if they could get the jobs, Clinton-Gore Democrats with real-life government experience may not find the Ivory Tower that welcoming. Being the architect of welfare reform or NAFTA expansion is more likely to get you thrown off the average left-wing college campus, while a radical deconstruction of patriarchical family units or an esoteric mathematical model of city council voting in 19th-century Philadelphia would probably get you tenure. Sadly, the academy has moved to the margins of public life.

There clearly is a market on the Hill, in the media, and in the states for Democratic policy alternatives. As 2004 gets closer, you can add a whole host of presidential candidates to the list of those who’ll be hunting for a critique of the Bush administration and a policy platform.

Coming up with the cash shouldn’t be a problem. Although liberal foundations are a lot more skittish than conservative ones about giving to aggressively political organizations, Democrats have proved that they can raise money like Republicans. With master fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe now at the helm of the Democratic National Committee and party stalwarts energized from the Florida recount, it shouldn’t be difficult to shake a few million here and there from mega-donors like Peter Buttenweiser, Washington hostess Beth Dozoretz, and Slim-Fast’s Danny Abraham.

Once existing organizations are beefed up or new think tanks are launched, they can count on a willing and able talent pool. But these wonks will move on if not tapped soon. Then, as Bush rolls forward with proposal after proposal, Democrats will discover that, indeed, minds are a terrible thing to waste.