The Podesta Era

Column: How the Center for American Progress conquered America

Many of John Podesta's lobbying firm's clients also supported his 501(c)3 Center for American Progress
John Podesta / AP
October 25, 2013

Last night the Center for American Progress celebrated its tenth anniversary with a "Progressive Party" at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on the National Mall. Don’t feel left out: I wasn’t invited either.

The partygoers had reason to celebrate. Over the last decade the Center for American Progress, also known as CAP, and its political arm, the CAP Action Fund, have established themselves among the most influential policy and activist organizations in America. CAP has revenues of $34 million. Its alumni occupy positions inside the Obama administration, in media, in business, and in the academy. Speakers at its policy conference this week included cabinet secretaries Kerry, Perez, and Lew; the presidents of the NAACP and the SEIU; the two liberal hosts of Crossfire; the leaders of left-wing parties in Canada and Australia; and Al Gore. President Obama, President Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid all said nice things about CAP in its anniversary video. From its headquarters on H Street, in downtown D.C., CAP exerts a pull over the Democratic Party like no other liberal institution. The right has no equivalent.

CAP’s power flows from two sources. The first is structural: John Podesta, CAP’s founder, is an expert at combining the Democratic Party platform with favor trading. He separated the tax-deductible, educational side of his think tank from the tax-exempt, political side. He lined up support from George Soros, from subprime mortgage kingpins Herb and Marion Sandler, from the secret donors behind the Democracy Alliance. He created a Business Alliance that solicited corporate and foreign contributions in exchange for "network-building" and "policy education" and other euphemisms for lobbying. Members of the Business Alliance reportedly include Boeing, GE, Goldman Sachs, Comcast, Walmart, and the Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists of Turkey—you know, the little guys.

Podesta used the CAP Action Fund’s website,, to nudge the mainstream media in an ideological direction. A former lobbyist whose brother still runs the family firm, Podesta harnessed the power generated by the revolving door. CAP became a way station for individuals like Steve Spinner, who went from investing in alternative energies in California, to donating to Barack Obama, to financing green energy companies with tax dollars, to advocating further taxpayer "investments" from his perch at CAP. Spinner is not a household name. But Solyndra is.

The intricate financial, institutional, media, and personnel structure that Podesta and his associates have built up over time should not be allowed to obscure the other source of their power. That source is not structural but ideological. When the Center for American Progress was established, the liberal left was isolated and largely defeated. Conservative Republicans controlled the White House and Congress. The most powerful political tendency in the Democratic Party was the Third Way of Bill Clinton: balanced budgets, free trade, humanitarian intervention, and triangulation on social issues.

On the most pressing question of the day, the war in Iraq, the Democratic Party was largely silent. Only Howard Dean took an aggressive stand against the war, against the Bush administration, against the social, economic, and nationalist conservatism that Bush represented. But Dean was on the margins. His most ardent followers were college students and techies. "For a long time progressives had been playing essentially defense on the economic conversation," says Tom Perriello, the former congressman, in the CAP anniversary YouTube clip.

CAP changed that equation not only through organization but also by supplying the ideological motives behind political action. Its influence is apparent not only in the faces of the Obama administration and the Democratic caucus but also in the policies the administration and the caucus put forward. The anniversary video cites three issues—Iraq, health care, and green jobs—where the organization’s ideological impact has been most apparent. We are out of Iraq, we are enduring Obamacare, and though clean energy cronyism may have paused during You Decide 2012, now it’s back.

CAP provided a home for liberal policy intellectuals to formulate a response to the challenges of empire and globalization. The response to crises of security and war was simple: get out. The response to inequality and wage stagnation was more complicated: spend money freely to improve education and infrastructure, create entitlements to health insurance and pre-K, tax the wealthy and use the revenues to improve the condition of the poor and lower-middle class. Post-material concerns such as reducing carbon emissions and expanding gay rights were married, so to speak, to the national security and economic agenda.

Above all, CAP permitted liberals not to be embarrassed by their positions or by their ideas; not to be defensive in a supposedly conservative America; not to apologize continually for the liberal messes of the sixties and seventies. By embracing the labels of "progress" and "progressive," CAP and its youthful allies in the Netroots reconnected the Democratic Party to its heritage as a force for advancing history, understood as the upward evolution of liberty and equality, through technical expertise as administered by the federal bureaucracy.

That goal was not easily accomplished. Dean’s rise and fall, John Kerry’s defeat, liberal desolation, Dean’s capture of the DNC, Jack Murtha’s turn against the Iraq War, Netroots challengers against Democrats supportive of the war effort, Joe Lieberman’s loss to Ned Lamont in the 2006 Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut, the resurgence of white blue-collar Democrats like Sherrod Brown, Jon Tester, and Jim Webb, and the fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton all had to take place before the Democratic Party could once again become a progressive force. Liberals exploited the weaknesses of the Bush administration as it struggled mightily to salvage the Iraq war and prevent economic catastrophe in the fall of 2008.

It is fair to ask whether the Democrats would have been able to achieve such success without the sense of firmness in the right that institutions such as CAP supplied. "When people look back to what moved the Reagan era into the Obama era, CAP will be at the center of that discussion," says John Halpin, another CAP official, in the anniversary clip.

It is hard to miss the parallels between the role that CAP played in the progressive revival and the role that the Heritage Foundation is playing in the current libertarian one. Obamacare has created the same dividing line within the Republican Party that the Iraq war created within the Democratic Party. Heritage under Jim DeMint has an intellectual side (the traditional think tank) as well as a political side (Heritage Action and the Senate Conservatives Fund). Heritage is ratcheting up its marketing and communications to emulate the success of outlets such as ThinkProgress. And Heritage is contributing to a fair amount of infighting and upheaval in the GOP.

What remains to be seen is whether the ascendant Tea Party wing of the conservative movement, which Heritage represents, will be able to capitalize on Democratic missteps. It also remains to be seen whether, in a presidential election, the ideas of the Tea Party have the same magnetic power and widespread appeal of progressivism.

But there really can be no doubt now that ideas are necessary, indeed crucial, to the revival of a political movement. "What rules the world is ideas," wrote Irving Kristol sometime ago, "because ideas define the way reality is perceived; and in the absence of religion, it is out of culture—pictures, poems, songs, philosophy—that these ideas are born." Until libertarianism develops a mass constituency, or until conservative institutions reassert a compelling and contemporary ideological program of their own, the playing field will be abandoned to the ideas of John Podesta and his think tank. And Podesta is playing the long game.

Who was the keynote speaker at last night’s Progressive Party? One Hillary Rodham Clinton.