Pot shots abound in the think tank world today following a report about a new right-wing advocacy group designed to rival the Center for American Progress's media arm Think Progress. Tired of the liberal website's dominance in the partisan journalism sphere, right-wing upstart the Center for American Freedom is launching a conservative online news site called the Washington Free Beacon edited by former Weekly Standard staffer Matthew Continetti, Politico reports.
Shortly following the report, Think Progress blogger Judd Legum fired off a post saying the organization's "mimickry [sic] of ThinkProgress and Cap ... borders on comical." The article was followed by a cheeky statement by Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden saying "we are flattered by the effort at imitation. However, CAP combines innovative communications with robust ideas on how to improve the lives of all Americans. I'm sure they'll have plenty of resources but we'll still have the ideas and the facts on our side."
As Politico's Ben Smith notes, CAF is an acknowledgement that right-wing think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation "have struggled to mix it up in the new online media sphere." But not everyone on the right is pleased with that assessment. "Both AEI and The Heritage Foundation have been immensely successful online," wrote The Washington Examiner's Conn Carroll. "The Heritage Foundation boasts over 400,000 Facebook likes, AEI has73,575, while CAP has only 22,837. On twitter, Heritage has 163,047 followers, AEI has 11,588, while CAP has 15,602."
Have America's think tanks really devolved into spats over who copied whom and who has more Twitter followers? Offering some perspective, The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen notes the evolution of DC think tanks, which has involved a great deal of borrowing from both sides:
If you were in Washington in the 1990s, you may recall that the left spent a considerable amount of time and energy focused on intellectual infrastructure. Progressives looked at the kind of operations conservatives had put together — think tanks, activist organizations, foundations, conferences, etc. — and realized the left needed to play catch-up.
And they did. Liberals got to work and created an incredibly impressive network of institutions and outlets. It didn’t happen overnight, of course, but in time, powerhouse outlets like Media Matters, MoveOn.org, TPM, and the Center for American Progress were not only up and running, but also having a major impact.
The great irony is, the left sought to duplicate the right’s intellectual infrastructure, and had so much success, the right now wants to duplicate the left’s intellectual infrastructure.
The fact that the left originally mimicked the right is certainly one irony. Another is the fact that these "think tanks," the supposed "university without students" are engaged in full-scale political combat and seemingly very little independent research. Interestingly, this was the subject of a new essay by in National Affairs by Tevi Troy. In today's Christian Science Monitor, Donald Marron expounds on the idea that think tanks are now more involved in political gamesmanship than nonpartisan research:
The balance between those two functions — policy development and political combat — has been steadily shifting. And with that shift, the work of Washington think tanks has undergone a transformation. Today, while most think tanks continue to serve as homes for some academic-style scholarship regarding public policy, many have also come to play more active (if informal) roles in politics. Some serve as governments-in-waiting for the party out of power, providing professional perches for former officials who hope to be back in office when their party next takes control of the White House or Congress. Some serve as training grounds for young activists. Some serve as unofficial public-relations and rapid-response teams for one of the political parties — providing instant critiques of the opposition’s ideas and public arguments in defense of favored policies.