Rise of Liberal Groups Shows in Court Nomination
By Dan Eggen
Within 24 hours of the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, an alliance formed solely to push the appointment had launched a six-figure ad buy on the major television networks.
"Raised in public housing by a working mom, who taught her the power of education," the text of the ad reads, as President Obama talks in the background about the virtues of an ideal jurist. "Tough prosecutor. Distinguished judge. Practical understanding of the law."
Conservative groups, by contrast, stumbled through days of disjointed messages and never mustered the resources for a major television campaign. By the end of the week, Republicans were fighting among themselves over perils of attacking the nation's first Hispanic high-court nominee.
The episode was one of the latest examples of how Obama's election has dramatically altered the landscape occupied by the advocacy groups, think tanks and lobbying firms that make up Washington's sprawling influence industry. Democratic and left-leaning groups are now ascendant, enjoying clout not seen in a generation and benefiting from close access to a White House brimming with former colleagues.
Major Democratic-leaning lobbying firms have posted record earnings despite a foundering economy. Many of the groups spent the Bush years championing policies that had little chance of being adopted; now, their ideas and positions are at the center of the Washington debate.
Obama's plan to offer public health insurance to compete with the private sector, for example, has its roots in a series of obscure papers circulated among liberal policy analysts several years ago. Some of those same analysts are now briefing the administration and Congress on how the system could be implemented.
Several thousand liberal activists have gathered in Washington this week for a national conference that includes appearances by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and other administration officials. The three-day event, dubbed "America's Future Now!," focuses heavily on health care reform, climate change policy and other issues championed by Obama.
But liberal groups are also learning the limits of their influence, whether they are being thwarted by conservative Democrats in the Senate or undermined by a president who has pursued a centrist path on many terrorism and defense issues. One example came in April, when a proposal allowing bankruptcy judges to reduce mortgage payments went down to easy defeat in the Senate, despite support from Obama and consumer groups.
"We're in an era now where we have a president who has committed to a transformative agenda of progressive change, but it's absolutely clear that change will be impossible without enormous involvement from the grassroots," said Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, an Internet-focused advocacy group that nearly doubled in size, to more than 5 million members, during the 2008 presidential campaign. "That's what our role is. It's not enough to change who's in power."
Many of the most influential liberal groups are brand new or relatively young. Fresh groups on the scene include Business Forward, which attempts to attract corporate support for Obama's economic policies; Unity '09, a coalition of progressive groups focused on pushing Obama's policy agenda; and Organizing for America, an Obama-sanctioned outreach project at the Democratic National Committee.
There are young left-leaning groups devoted to healthcare (Health Care for America Now), economics (the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities), defense (the Center for New American Security), and labor issues (Change to Win). Another group dubbed Common Purpose holds seminars every Tuesday at the Capital Hilton near the White House, bringing together more than 100 liberal activists with Obama administration aides to debate policy and plot strategy.
Matt Bennett, public affairs director for Third Way, a center-left think tank, said the groups amount to "a new intellectual infrastructure" for progressives in Washington.
The granddaddy of the new vanguard is the Center for American Progress, a think-tank founded with three employees in 2003 by longtime Democratic adviser John Podesta, who served as Bill Clinton's chief of staff and ran Obama's transition office. Now boasting 180 employees and a $25 million annual budget, CAP has it own lobbying arm called the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a student-focused project called Campus Progress, and a political blog called Think Progress.
Podesta launched the project as a liberal counterpoint to conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, which have exerted outsized influence on Republican policies over the last 30 years. Podesta estimates that some 40 staffers from his project are now employed in the Obama administration, including domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes, deputy White House counsel Cassandra Butts and climate-change envoy Todd Stern.
But Grover Norquist, the conservative activist whose influential Wednesday breakfast meetings served as an inspiration for the Common Purpose project, argues that left-leaning groups have too many "internal contradictions" to get along for very long.
"For the moment there's a false sense of comity," he said. "But at the end of the day they're competing parasites. At some point the unions will come up against the environmentalists, and the whole thing will start to fall apart."
Indeed, small cracks have already appeared in the fragile coalition. Many grassroots groups strongly object to expanded military involvement in Afghanistan, the bailouts of financial firms on Wall Street and Obama's decisions last monthMay to revive military commissions and block the release of photos showing detainee abuse. In Congress, Democratic-led hearings on health-care reform have been disrupted by activists on the left demanding a "single-payer" nationalized insurance system, which Obama and his allies have explicitly ruled out.
Liberal activists acknowledge that disagreements between Obama and the groups that supported his rise to power are inevitable. But Podesta said that "being in the wilderness concentrated people's attention on trying to be good collaborators. It's not like we're not being competitive. But people have done a pretty good job of keeping focused on the prize and trying to get the country moving in the right direction."
Robert L. Borasage, the founder of the Campaign for America's Future, which began as a group opposed to Bill Clinton's centrist approach on welfare and other issues, said the "scope of the crisis" facing the country has so far tamped down potentially noisy disputes.
"There is a real argument going on with the Obama administration on some issues, but it hasn't gotten in way of unity around other issues," Borasage said, adding: "You have to remember, Obama is enormously attractive to progressives in general. That goes a long way."
Borasage's group is a typical example of the expansion of liberal influence in Washington in recent years. His center's budget, which not long ago barely broke $1 million annually, has expanded to over $5 million thanks to financial support from "regular people, foundations, unions and idiosyncratic rich people," as Borasage jokingly puts it.
The political shift extends to the traditional lobbying firms that cluster around the K Street corridor in downtown Washington. The Podesta Group, which is run by John Podesta's brother, Tony, is now one of the biggest and fastest-growing lobbying firms in Washington. The firm, which reported $5.5 million in lobbying expenditures in the first three months of this year, recently hired a former Obama campaign director, Teal Baker, to conduct "outreach to the Obama administration for Podesta Group clients," the company said.
Winnie Stachelberg, the Center for American Progress's external affairs chief, said Obama's campaign changed the landscape in Washington "because the race was fought on the side of the field that favored progressive, rather than conservative, issues.
"The question is, can you take that skill and the muscle you've developed and take it to the governing part?" she continued. "We're only about 100 days in, but it seems that there's more hanging together than not."
Posted at 6:31 AM ET on Jun 3, 2009
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