Democrats Line Up Their Own Billionaire Firepower

Times Staff Writer

Republicans had just gained control of the Senate and fattened their majority in the House. Surveying the wreckage of the 2002 elections, Democrats cried foul.

They blamed, in part, the right wing's deep pockets. They said advocacy groups clogged the nation's airwaves with venom. And they railed about conservative talk radio and its power to turn out the vote.

"We see it in foreign countries and we think, 'Well, my God, how can this religious fundamentalism become so violent?' " said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in a postelection analysis with reporters. "Well, it's that same shrill rhetoric, that same shrill power that motivates."

Now, a year out from the 2004 elections, Democrats have stopped complaining. Instead, they have their own billionaires pledged to the cause, plotting to mimic the think tanks, advocacy groups and media outlets that have given conservatives a political edge.

The left's new firepower owes something to President Bush, who provokes visceral loathing in liberals, much as Bill Clinton did in conservatives. It owes even more to the McCain-Feingold finance reform law, which bans wealthy individuals from making soft-money contributions directly to political parties -- contributions that the Democrats relied on heavily. Big donors are instead limited only by their imaginations, free to fund corollary efforts they think might benefit their political allies.

So George Soros, the liberal financier who has given away nearly $5 billion to promote democracy in the former Soviet Union, is giving $10 million to America Coming Together, a group working to get out progressive votes in 17 pivotal states. With Peter B. Lewis, a Cleveland-based insurance billionaire, Soros has pledged $5 million to MoveOn.org, an Internet antiwar group.

Joel Hyatt, founder of the Hyatt Legal Services chain of storefront legal clinics and a onetime candidate for the Senate from Ohio, is backing former Vice President Al Gore's bid to start a new youth-oriented cable network to counter the influence of Fox News. Mark Walsh, a former AOL executive who served as chief technology advisor to the Democratic National Committee, has purchased a radio network from two Chicago venture capitalists with hopes of launching an alternative to conservative talk radio.

John Podesta, the former chief of staff in Clinton's White House, has raised $13 million for a new left-wing think tank, the Center for American Progress. And Norman Lear, the pioneer of liberal television shows like "All in the Family," is corralling Hollywood into a $27-million effort to get out the youth vote.

Liberals make no apology for their newfound reliance on big-money backers to influence politics. "America, under Bush, is a danger to the world," Soros told the Washington Post. "And I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is."

Liberal thinkers seem happy to have the infusion of cash. "The right has been smarter strategically," said Robert Kuttner, editor of American Prospect Magazine, a left-wing publication that has grown from a quarterly 13 years ago to a 55,000-circulation monthly. "I've been in a lot of meetings where those of us who are liberal and progressive have been figuring out how we don't get outgunned at the level of ideas."

This new war of ideas funded by billionaires could change the face of the 2004 election. Far from ceding the money game to Republicans, Democrats are determined to be competitive. "We're back to the arms race," said Larry Noble, president of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that monitors campaign spending.

To many on the left, the role model for this surge of influence-peddling is the Heritage Foundation, founded 30 years ago with seed money from beer magnate Joseph Coors and a major, multiyear investment from philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife that has topped $25 million.

Staffed by former aides to Republican lawmakers, Heritage specializes in issuing papers timed to congressional debates that push mainstream political thinking to the right. Conservative briefing papers from Heritage fueled the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s and the Gingrich Revolution of the 1990s, and show no sign of ebbing.

"We want to be the Heritage of the left," said Laura Nichols, the new vice president for communications at the Center for American Progress.

To many on the right, this is a remarkable assertion, since Heritage was itself an attempt to parrot entrenched power centers such as the Brookings Institution and the Ford Foundation.

"The problem is not that they don't have well-funded foundations," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a leading light of the conservative movement. "It's just that their ideas don't sell."

And there's the rub for liberals, part of a long-standing debate about why the Republicans have so often captured the White House in recent years. Noting the exception to the GOP tide -- Clinton's eight-year presidency -- many argue that liberals have to move to the center and appeal to swing voters, soccer moms, Reagan Democrats and, in short, Middle America.

"We've got to be real careful not to take [our] eye off the main thing, compelling ideas," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a moderate Democratic group that helped craft Clinton's "third way" approach to policy.

Others, noting that Republicans have honed their ideas into a core of well-defined values, think liberals need to imitate that, or at least do a better job of communicating their beliefs. In the recent congressional tussles over Medicare and judicial nominees, some Democrats said they were defeated in part because of the disciplined message and strong-arm tactics of the right.

"Although it's taken 30 years of debate within their ranks, conservatives have a broad outline of what they believe in -- smaller government, less taxes, family values," Nichols said. "You would be hard pressed to come up with that on our side. On the left, we have a general agreement on the issues but we've made the mistake of substituting a laundry list."

In part, Nichols said, Democrats want to see the think tanks supply a new crop of academics serving as messengers on 24-hour-a-day media outlets. "We want to arm a bigger bench of able communicators to go do cable combat," he said.

In the world of Washington think tanks, there are more that attract former government officials than zealots. Brookings, which Norquist derides as liberal, is generally considered centrist, reflecting the political stripes of whatever party is recently out of power. Even the American Enterprise Institute, home to a cadre of conservatives who supported the Bush war in Iraq, is considered a mainstream institution.

It is Heritage and the libertarian CATO Institute, along with the California-based Hoover Institute, that are home to the ideologues, and it is their activism that the new liberals hope to emulate.

Richard Perle, a member of the Defense Advisory Board who works at the American Enterprise Institute, dismissed the new liberal institutions as more political than ideological, "a way around the soft-money ban." He points out that, "George Soros says publicly that he wants to defeat George Bush. These are not scholars."

Marcus Raskin, a National Security Council staffer in the Kennedy administration who founded a progressive think tank 40 years ago, is also unsure these new institutions have staying power.

The Institute for Policy Studies, which Raskin founded in 1963, is not a major player in town, but it is solvent and relevant.

Most recently, the institute spearheaded a campaign among 165 cities to oppose the war in Iraq unless the conflict gained U.N. backing. A new revolving-door think tank on the left would not be that interesting, he said, though one that explored corporate responsibility and the national security state would.

Are liberals bothered by the new infusion of big money into left-wing causes? "There's an old Russian proverb," Raskin said. "When money speaks, God keeps his mouth shut."

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