Liberal activists mimic conservatives' tactics

Talk-radio show planned, innovative policies sought

December 07, 2003|By Naftali Bendavid | Naftali Bendavid,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Liberal activists, frustrated by what they see as powerful conservative voices in the media -- including Rush Limbaugh, Fox News Channel and the Heritage Foundation -- have begun creating institutions they hope will compete with conservatives in churning out appealing policy ideas.

The creations range from a think tank headed by former President Bill Clinton's chief of staff to a nascent liberal radio network to a legal society designed to offset the influential Federalist Society. There is talk of a progressive television network, and the Internet-based grass-roots group MoveOn.org has gained thousands of adherents and paid for ads such as those calling President Bush a "MisLeader."

In the world of money, liberal billionaire George Soros is beginning to take up the role on the left that has been filled on the right by the Scaife, Coors, Olin and Bradley foundations.

The flurry of activity reflects a Democratic despondency over Republican control of the White House and Congress. Many liberals view the array of conservative think tanks, foundations and publications as a big reason the GOP has managed to keep its ideas before the public.

"The conservatives have built a huge infrastructure, reaching from the national level down to state and local levels, to develop and disseminate ideas," said Douglas Hattaway, a one-time spokesman for former Vice President Al Gore. "There has been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the sorry state of the Democratic Party."

But the emergence of new liberal organizations suggests that "the progressive constituency behind the party is regrouping very quickly," said Hattaway, who is advising the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank headed by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta.

Liberals hope the new institutions will spark a return to a time when ideas such as Medicare and environmentalism swept across the political scene as bold new concepts before yielding, in recent years, to proposals such as welfare reform and tax cuts.

This trend marks the latest battlefront in a long political and cultural war between the right and left. Many conservative institutions that dominate Washington were created after the 1960s out of a belief that liberals controlled academia, the news media and Hollywood.

"Those groups formed in response to what the conservatives saw as the almost complete dominance of the policy arena by liberals," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

The Heritage Foundation was created to bring together conservative scholars, and, joined by other think tanks, it has been key in hatching conservative ideas from welfare reform to the flat tax and Social Security privatization.

Meanwhile, donors such as Richard Mellon Scaife have poured money into conservative causes. Publications such as The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard and The Washington Times publicize right-leaning ideas. Talk-show hosts -- among them Limbaugh, Oliver North, and G. Gordon Liddy -- have earned passionate followings.

Regnery Publishing, a conservative publishing house, thrived with such books as Absolute Power: The Legacy of Corruption in the Clinton-Reno Justice Department by David Limbaugh, Rush's brother, and At Any Cost: How Gore Tried to Steal the Election by Bill Sammon.

To liberals, this was a frightening array of weaponry, though many conservatives still feel overmatched, saying dozens of environmental, abortion rights, civil rights and other activist groups throw their weight behind liberal causes.

But few doubt that the once-upstart conservative institutions wield influence. They helped bring Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush to Washington. Those leaders in turn brought the groups' ideas into the corridors of power.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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