On the Intellectual Ramparts
New think tanks are advocating as well as incubating ideas
By Amy Wilentz
(TIME, September 1, 1986) -- As the day drew near for a House vote on aid to the Nicaraguan contras, the Heritage Foundation massed its forces on behalf of the rebel troops. In its snug maroon auditorium just a few blocks from the Capitol, it held an all-day seminar for congressional staffers. The guests of honor: two top contra officers and a Nicaraguan opposition journalist. A week later Heritage issued a brisk nine-page report titled Nicaragua's Terrorist Connection, copies of which were distributed by hand to all Congressmen and to targeted staff members. Heritage's pro-contra blitz was on.
The reign of the pensive, passive, pipe-smoking Washington think tank is under assault. These venerable research institutions, which sprang up in the first decades of this century, are being upstaged by groups of intellectual crusaders that helped make the Republicans the party of ideas and paved the way for Ronald Reagan's election. The new "advocacy tanks" see themselves as more than merely idea incubators; they also take on the task of selling those ideas.
As a result, traditional think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, are finding it harder to maintain their public influence and attract funds from corporations and private foundations. A.E.I., once Washington's most influential citadel of mainstream conservative policy research, has perhaps been the most seriously injured by the rise of the advocacy tanks. In 1980 it looked as though A.E.I. would be the darling of the Reagan Administration. But as the advocacy tanks sprang up, it became clear that the thoughtful, stodgy institute was not at the cutting edge of influence. Corporate givers, who want a return on their money as well as some deep thinking, noted the change. After years of steady increases, donations declined slightly this past year. The institute had to cut planned spending by 25% during the past year and reduce its 154-member staff by about 45.
Think tanks are privately funded, nonprofit, tax-exempt foundations dedicated to public-policy research. Traditional ones may be slightly to the right or to the left of center, but they have made a show of evenhandedness in presenting their research. In the depths of their Washington buildings, ideas simmered until they percolated into books and monographs that laid the foundation for legislation. "These groups," says James A. Smith, a historian at the Twentieth Century Fund in Manhattan who is writing a book on public-policy organizations, "were inspired by the belief that people of divergent political viewpoints and interests could get together, discuss the facts and reach some kind of policy consensus." But when Reagan swept into Washington, his appointments gave bureaucratic access to a different league of players: "movement conservatives," who had a specific and radical agenda in mind. "The conservative elite," says Sidney Blumenthal, author of the forthcoming book The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, "sees itself as a counter to the liberal establishment, which includes not only liberals but traditional Republicans. Institution by institution, the conservatives have built up an infrastructure in the shadow of the liberal establishment, to combat and finally to overthrow it. The think tanks are obviously an important part of the movement." Blumenthal calls the growth of this conservative intellectual elite "the most dramatic political development in recent American history."
Heritage, launched in 1973 by Colorado brewing magnate Joseph Coors, was quick to take advantage of the new atmosphere of advocacy. "We are the intellectual shock troops of the conservative revolution," says Burton Pines, a Heritage vice president. Reagan, a guest at several Heritage dinners since taking office, gave it a fitting accolade in 1981 when e called it "that feisty new kid on the conservative block." The foundation has gone from a start-up budget of $250,000 to $11.5 million this year.
During the 1960s, the Brookings Institution acted almost as a policy-planning staff for the programs of the New Frontier and Great Society. Although Heritage is far more overtly ideological, it plays much the same role today. Its president, Edwin Feulner Jr., gives his foundation credit for nudging the Administration toward tax reform, conceiving the Strategic Defense Initiative, directing aid to Angolan Rebel Leader Jonas Savimbi, and singling out domestic programs to be slashed from the federal budget. Says one Washington observer: "For all practical purposes, the Heritage Foundation today is a closer, more integrated part of the Reagan Administration than, say, the Energy Department." Whatever the policy battle, says Feulner, Heritage is there, "providing the intellectual ammunition."
Heritage's rapid rise and its special relationship with the Reagan Administration have set an example for scores of organizations, most of them on the right (see chart). They have begun putting in place a national network of movement conservatives.
The ascendancy of these conservative advocacy tanks has caused consternation among the older, more established think tanks. "The problem," says Thomas Hughes, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "is how to operate in this sea of ideology. We find ourselves in the surprising position of being the custodians of what we always thought were the rules of the game, getting people of different points of view to interact under the same roof." During the contra aid debate, for example, Carnegie sent two of its senior associates, Robert Leiken and Peter Bell, to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: one for, one against.
The older think tanks still staff their offices with well-known scholars and former Government officials awaiting their next appointments. Brookings (1986 budget: $14.5 million) is the grande dame of the genre, with a history that goes back to 1916. Though in the 1960s it became entrenched on the liberal front, today Brookings calls itself centrist. Among its leading lights: Economic Studies Director Alice Rivlin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office; and Senior Fellow Charles Schultze, chief economic adviser during the Carter Administration.
A.E.I. (1986 budget: $12.4 million), begun in 1943 with a business orientation, became a conservative counterpart to Brookings. It has an active publication and program schedule featuring Gerald Ford and Jeane Kirkpatrick. Carnegie (1986 budget: $5.4 million) was created in 1910 by Industrialist Andrew Carnegie and now specializes in foreign policy matters. Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies (1986 budget: $9 million) was founded in 1962 and serves as a roost for Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, James Schlesinger and Robert McFarlane.
At Heritage things work differently. Youthful policy analysts in Wallabees and khakis bustle through the halls of Heritage's new $9.5 million headquarters carrying reports they have just finished writing. Average age: 32. Average experience in Government: none. "These are little nobodies," sniffs an official from a competing institution. In fact, most are dedicated conservatives who have yet to make their names.
The success of the advocacy tanks has spawned other tax-exempt offshoots. One new hybrid, which mixes the role of a think tank with that of a political-action committee, is connected to candidates with presidential aspirations. Then there are the "vanity tanks," whose existence centers on an individual, typically the founder. One example: the Ethics and Public Policy Center, founded by Ernest Lefever. Whether such organizations can survive after their original leader is gone is unclear. The Hudson Institute, Herman Kahn's future-oriented think tank, went through a precarious time financially after Kahn's death in 1983, and still has not recaptured the prestige it once enjoyed.
The only major think tank with a leftish lean is the Institute for Policy Studies (1986 budget: $1.8 million), which started up in 1963. In recent years I.P.S. has done studies that criticize U.S. policies on human rights, disarmament and the military-industrial complex. "We would never do five-page reports like Heritage because the problems the country faces are too serious, and we have too much respect for the legislators," says Director Robert Borosage. Nevertheless, when I.P.S. completes a planned three-year, multimillion-dollar expansion, it intends to hold more congressional briefings and press briefings. "We want to take a much more visible role," says Borosage.
At the moment, however, much of the vigorous advocacy on the left is coming from citizens' organizations dedicated to particular causes, such as exposing human rights abuses in authoritarian regimes, supporting programs to revitalize urban areas, protecting civil liberties, and enhancing the welfare of the poor and homeless. But the ability of the left to nurture innovative ideas has been hampered by its lack of new research institutes with well-funded facilities and staffs.
The movement conservatives and their advocacy tanks have settled in around Washington, and they are getting comfortable. Meanwhile, the stolid old think tanks, which once helped to hold together the center in American politics, are trimming their moderate ways to fit the bold fashion of this decade's foundations. "What really scares me," says Historian Smith, "is that the center is in trouble. These new tanks are not looking as far ahead as these organizations did in the past. What's really in trouble is the long-term research and planning that gave our politics their pragmatic quality."
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