Vol. 5 / No. 2 / Spring 2009  

American Think Tanks

by Lee Michael Katz

Their Influence is on the Rise

Think tanks as conveners: Barack Obama speaking at an “Opportunity 08” Tax Policy Center event sponsored by the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute.

When Rep. Jane Harman, a key intelligence expert in Congress, sought a firsthand impression of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev during his trip to Washington, the opportunity came not in a formal room at the Capitol or at the White House, but at an event sponsored by a think tank in a Dupont Circle mansion.

During a lightning trip to the nation’s capital for an emergency economic summit in November 2008, Medvedev still took time out to address The Council on Foreign Relations. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright served as the high-powered moderator for a packed audience eager to learn the Russian president’s views on relations with the soon-to-be-installed Obama Administration.

Those in attendance ranged from NBC’s then-Meet The Press moderator Tom Brokaw to influential California Democratic Congresswoman Harman. While seeing Russia’s recently elected president was “a first” for Council member Harman, the institutional setting wasn’t. “I’m a great fan of think tanks,” she says with policy wonk enthusiasm.

“I go to a number of them,” Rep. Harman adds, rattling off the names of the Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Center For Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Center for American Progress, which along with the Heritage Foundation, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Cato Institute are dominant players in think-tank-laden Washington. “I see it as an opportunity to have experiences different from what I get at work,” Harman says.

Rep. Harman’s remarks symbolize the view of many that think tanks are major players in Washington. They can be seen as almost a fourth branch of government, influencing Congress, U.S. federal agencies and presidential administrations.

The rise of think tanks in recent decades may reach a pinnacle during the Obama era. At its zenith is a new liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress. The Center was designed to bring about the election of a Democrat, then played a major role in President Obama’s transition and is now supplying some top officials to his administration.

The start of a new presidential administration is a busy season for think tanks as they strive to show the worth of their ideas and their policy clout. Like accountants every April, every four years think tanks are immersed in a frenzy of work. Instead of piles of tax returns, they file a blizzard of Internet memorandums, publications and even books of suggestions for the new administration. Studies were so plentiful that Carnegie Corporation created a web site entitled “Advice To The President,”1 which included many think tank reports on subjects ranging from Afghanistan to U.S. economic policy.

“This is a particularly important time, a competition for people’s attention span,” explains Jessica Tuchman Mathews, President of the Carnegie Endowment. “The early period [of a presidential administration] is a time when new policy is made.”

University of Pennsylvania professor James McGann, who studies think tanks, cites their “tremendous influence” and “demonstrable impact” on the ideas and policies that are formulated in Washington. “You read The Washington Post, it quotes representatives from think tanks,” he says. “These institutions are constantly meeting, formally or informally, with members of Congress.”

Lee Hamilton has seen their effect from both sides as a retired 34-year member of Congress who now heads the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “I think the role of think tanks in this town is hugely important,” he observes. “They really are an incubator of ideas for policy.”

Another facet of “the tanks,” as they are known colloquially in Washington, is providing a standing government talent pool for new presidents. “Many of the think tanks are developing talent for a new administration. You will see a large number of people leaving the think tanks to go into the Obama administration,” Hamilton predicts.

While Britain has a formalized government-in-waiting for a political party out of power, the United States lacks such a system. But “think tanks in the United States are the closest thing we have to a shadow government,” observes P.J. Crowley, a Clinton Administration national security official now at the Center for American Progress.

In his book A Capitol Idea: Think Tanks and U.S. Foreign Policy (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006), Donald Abelson notes that think tanks “often serve as ‘holding tanks’ where policy experts congregate in hopes of being recruited into senior government positions.” Many might wind up as assistant and deputy assistant secretaries of Cabinet departments or as mid- to high-level political appointees in federal agencies.

But the Bush administration included perhaps the most powerful next-in-line of succession think-tank recruits: Vice President Dick Cheney, from the American Enterprise Institute, along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from the Hoover Institution.

President Barack Obama’s appointments include think tank veterans tapped for high-level positions in different areas of government including Cabinet undersecretaries. President Obama also reached into the think tank world for two top foreign policy and national security positions. Susan Rice, from the Brookings Institution, is the new U.N. Ambassador. National Security Adviser James Jones was Chairman of the Board of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank focused on U.S.-European relations.

1 www.advicetothepresident.org

A Field Where America Leads

One reason for their prominence is the sheer number of powerful U.S. think tanks. Other nations may export goods to America, but the United States still leads the world in think tank production. McGann and a team of 30 interns surveyed think tanks across the globe. They found that the U.S. housed 1,777 of 5,000 think tanks worldwide.

The “unique” power of U.S. think tanks is a “distinguishing characteristic” of America, McGann notes. European nations, for example, have numerous political parties with strong intellectual arms. “In other countries, think tanks do not have the same degree of independence and influence.”

While American prominence in the field is clear, even experts concede that the definition of a think tank tends to be in the eye of the beholder. “Basically, I see them as public policy research, analysis and engagement institutions,” states McGann. “A necessity of think tanks is to engage policymakers, the media and the public in order to be effective.”

Former Congressman Hamilton also salutes the policy aspect of think tanks. “What has distinguished them from an academic institution,” he says, is “they know what the cutting-edge questions of policy are.”

But concerns about advocacy and differences in perspective have caused both Hamilton’s Woodrow Wilson Center and the contracting giant RAND to shy away from the term “think tank,” though others apply that label to them. “Lots of folks still describe us that way,” RAND Vice President Lindsey Kozberg acknowledges.

No matter who accepts the label, successful think tanks need to know their place, according to the Carnegie Endowment’s Mathews, “as a bridge between government, academia, business and, depending on the issue, science. Good ones recognize that their role is not to be academic outside of academia or try to be government policymakers outside of government,” she says.

“Think tanks tends to emphasize what should be a sensible strategy,” notes former Secretary of State George Shultz. “People who are close to the problems can easily get dominated by tactics. That’s the contribution of the think tanks: strategy.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (R.) and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations at the Washington Club on November15, 2008. Carnegie Corporation Right at the Start

Though flourishing in today’s Internet world, American Think Tanks began as an early 20th century idea, with the first of today’s top institutions starting to emerge before World War I. The Bookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment were created in the early 1900s. Their rise was fostered by President Woodrow Wilson’s distrust of academic experts in government and Andrew Carnegie’s quest for world peace.

In fact, Andrew Carnegie marked his 75th birthday in 1910 by announcing a $10 million donation to create the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Its charge, he explained, was to “hasten the abolition of international war, the foulest blot upon our civilization.”

One of the Endowment’s first trustees was a former U.S. ambassador, Robert S. Brookings, who would later create his own institution. Due to its size and longevity, “Brookings is the granddaddy of them all,” declares Murray Weidenbaum, author of The Competition of Ideas: The World of Washington Think Tanks (Transaction Publishers, 2008), and a noted economist who runs a Washington University Center named after him.

Three organizations, including the Institute for Government founded by Robert Brookings a decade earlier, merged in 1927 to create Brookings, which remains a Washington giant. A significant Carnegie Corporation grant helped to provide the economic strength to back the merger and finance economic research that proved critical when the Depression struck at the end of the Roaring Twenties.

“We have Carnegie Corporation to thank for getting off the ground,” declares Brookings President Strobe Talbott. The Corporation gave an initial gift of $1.65 million over 10 years starting in 1922, according to Brookings Managing Director William Antholis. Smaller gifts followed from 1929 to 1940, as America grappled with the Depression.2

A decade later, World War II provided the impetus for the creation of the term “think tank” according to some accounts, with the name originally used to refer to brainstorming groups dealing with thorny military issues.

After the war, RAND claims to be the first organization to be called a think tank, following its 1948 founding. RAND became a power based on government contracts and corporate support. A little more than a decade later, a new think tank emerged that would view itself as “the most powerful of the powerless.”

Marcus Raskin was a White House aide in his 20s, but soon learned even John Kennedy’s Camelot had to deal with political reality rather than “moral” questions. With another disaffected Kennedy Administration official, in 1963 he founded the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), which became a brand name for its unabashedly left-wing tone.

The IPS Dupont Circle headquarters was packed with visitors during the “uproar” of the 1960s. “Very quickly, with the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Institute became a place where different people from the movements came. People came in from demonstrations,” Raskin recalls, and “camped out in the offices. Early on,” Raskin notes, “we had predicted that Vietnam would be a disaster.”

Tens of thousands of copies of an IPS anti-war Vietnam Reader (which became a kind of textbook for anti-war teach-ins) were distributed in 1965. Raskin was indicted on federal charges during Lyndon Johnson’s administration with a group of other anti-war activists including Benjamin Spock. “The charge was encouraging people to resist the draft,” Raskin says, but remembers, “I won before the jury.”

While one left-wing think tank rankled the notoriously mercurial Johnson, he found the mainstream Brookings Institution far more to his liking. On Brookings’ 50th anniversary in 1966, Johnson’s speech saluted the “influence of scholars and thinkers” on his Great Society reforms. He delivered a memorable line about the think tank. “You are a national institution, so important” to the executive branch, “the Congress and the country,” Johnson declared, “that if you did not exist, we would have to ask someone to create you.”

2 In the ensuing years, the Corporation has made grants totaling over $16 million to support various Brookings Institution programs and activities.

In the early 1970s, Raskin’s decidedly liberal activities earned a place on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, which he cites as a point of intellectual pride. “The interesting thing is that as the political parties gave up having ideas, think tanks emerged. Think tanks became the place where ideas began to germinate.”

But in 1976, the Washington car bombings of two IPS staffers, Orlando Letelier, a former diplomat who opposed the Chilean dictatorship and Roni Moffitt, brought the global impact of those ideas home in a deadly fashion. The Institute commemorates its fallen staffers with the Letelier-Moffit Human Rights awards.

During the mid to late 1970’s, an ideological revolution occurred: the think tank pendulum swung decidedly right. Raskin recalls with a touch of irony that when the Heritage Foundation started, “one of its early monographs was a discussion of IPS saying the Institute never had enough money, but we’ll have enough money and we’ll be able to do on the right what they could only partly do on the left.”

Backed by beer magnate Joseph Coors and others, Heritage set out in 1974 to have a conservative impact on Congress and the White House. “People would come up with wonderful, principled positions that free markets were good, but they wouldn’t be able to translate that into specific legislative proposals,” explains Edwin Feulner, founder and President of Heritage.

Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 provided a turning point for Heritage. Aided by 450 volunteers, Heritage put together a massive document, the Mandate for Leadership, calling for conservative changes across government. “It was our coming of age,” Feulner says. “It made us serious participants in the policy process.” Reagan is said to have given the Mandate book to every one of his Cabinet secretaries. And “what made the Heritage name,” Feulner observes, “was when Ronald Reagan called us both his favorite think tank and the feisty new kid on the conservative block.”

Like political power, think tank influence flowed back and forth among Republican and Democratic-oriented lines in the next two decades. The 1990s brought a response to Heritage from the Democrats. The Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) became a rarity among think tanks as a partner of the Democratic Leadership Council. The party affiliation helped carry PPI’s ideas into the Clinton campaign and administration.

After Republicans took over the White House in 2001, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) was known for supplying prominent conservatives to the Bush administration, including Dick Cheney and U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. “You do such good work that my administration has borrowed twenty such minds,” Bush noted at AEI’s annual dinner in early 2003, using the event to bolster his argument for what would soon be the war in Iraq.

Also in 2003, Clinton administration refugees established the Center for American Progress in an unabashed attempt to promote liberal “progressive” values and take back the White House for Democrats. “They took a page from the Heritage Foundation playbook” on creating muscular political influence, notes McGann.

P.J. Crowley of the Center acknowledges “we have, to some extent, modeled ourselves on the Heritage Foundation and have tried to [promote] for the progressive wing of political thought the same kind of idea genesis that Heritage did for the conservative movement back in the 1980s.”

This effort extends to a lengthy document designed to provide the intellectual backbone for change. Much like Heritage’s powerful tome following Reagan’s election, the Center for American Progress recently released a book-length report, Change For America. It was termed a “progressive blueprint” for the Obama administration.

 washington, d.c.

Location, Location, Location.

Washington is known as the epicenter of the think tank world.

There are 374 think tanks in Washington, according to a survey carried out by University of Pennsylvania professor James McGann. That number is not only the most in the United States, the capital’s think tank total is more than in all of Great Britain or any other country in the world.

“Think Tank Row” in D.C. is centered around the city’s lively Dupont Circle. Nearby on Massachusetts Avenue, Brookings and the Carnegie Endowment sit side by side in imposing buildings taking up half a city block. Both are abuzz on a Friday afternoon with policy luncheons and other events.

Across the street is the modern black-fronted Peterson Institute for International Economics. Peterson’s next-door neighbors are the Center for Global Development and Center For Policy Studies. The embassy of Uzbekistan barely squeezes in next to Johns Hopkins University’s international studies school and its Center For Transatlantic Relations.

Working Washington is a compact city and other major think tanks are not far away. The American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies are in prime downtown D.C. locations. Heritage occupies a large building on Capitol Hill, just a stroll away from Congressional offices.

In Washington, the think tank connection extends beyond the workday. The collegiality and impact of think tanks is so rooted in D.C. that for decades they have had their own softball league, taking out competitive rivalries with games played in the shadows of Washington’s monuments.

Even out-of-town institutions strive for a Washington presence. In January, the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations opened its new Washington building, blocks from the White House and the World Bank. And RAND may be headquartered in California, but it has a large “campus” in the Washington suburb of Arlington with hundreds of employees.

No matter what a think tank’s ideological stripes are, a physical presence in the capital can be linked to policy influence.

After a few years in California, the Cato Institute’s libertarian operation moved to Washington. Even for an organization seeking less government, a D.C. location is critical. “If you’re sitting there in San Francisco, throwing out these tirades against government, it’s going to be heavily discounted,” explains Cato founder Crane.

But one major American think tank, the Hoover Institution, flourishes in California, thousands of miles away from Washington, on the campus of Stanford University. Hoover has the “disadvantage” of being far from D.C., admits George Shultz, who has spent much of his career as a quintessential Washington power player. “But it has the advantage of not being in Washington, so you tend not to be working on whatever issues are titillating people in Washington at the moment.” As an example, he cites the “gigantic impact” of a Hoover fellow and economist, the late Milton Friedman. “We’re talking about the world of ideas here,” Shultz declares, “and you don’t have to be in Washington to have an idea.”

Big Dollars Fuel Big Thoughts

Money still matters in the world of ideas. Today’s top think tanks aren’t made up of a few scholars in musty offices, but are major financial operations. Leading think tanks operate roughly in terms of $10 million to $40 million annual budgets, with some exceptions, according to McGann.

The explosive growth of major think tanks has been fostered by a stunning display of financial growth in recent decades. Cato Institute founder Edward Crane recalls an initial budget of $600,000 when starting out in 1977 and recalls, “We probably had about 10 people.” As CATO was heading into 2009, “I’m looking at $25 million budget and 115 employees,” he says.

Crane courts high-dollar individual contributors with twice a year Cato immersion retreats. The key to the think tank’s financial success is to keep major contributors involved, he points out. Cato “is not looking for some massive direct-mail operation with a group of people giving $15,” he explains.

But increasing financial muscle is not limited to any point on the ideological spectrum. Despite the rise of conservatism that spawned Cato and Heritage, centrist and liberal think tanks have also experienced rapid growth since 1980, McGann notes. “There’s a lot of people putting money in these institutions year in and year out.”

Yet more money can also bring more worries about the ethics of its use in such an influential American arena. Especially in recent years, “a funding pattern of think tanks, whether they’re conservative or liberal, is that it is very project specific,” McGann notes. The think tank analyst is concerned about the possibility of a wealthy partisan donor potentially having “a distorted and negative impact on these institutions. Someone is determining the agenda of what gets researched.”

For think tank scholars, rising budgets have brought one welcome trend: the value of think tank experts has also increased greatly over the years. Senior fellows at one major think tank earn about $150,000 to $200,000 a year. “Superstar” or high-demand area scholars can earn $250,000 or more annually.

The increasing salaries reflect intellectual supply and demand. Think tanks compete to retain and recruit economists and foreign policy experts to tackle those two major American challenges considered hot fields for research.

Not Always Peaceful Coexistence

Both think tanks and universities are focused on ideas and scholarship, but with different missions. So the research bent of think tanks without classrooms or faculty meetings can lead to a clash of intellectual cultures and roles. Setting the stage for possible discord is the perception that “the role that universities once played is now largely played by think tanks,” opines John Bolton.

At think tanks linked to universities, conflict or jealousies can arise with college faculty members. Shultz acknowledges at Hoover “there used to be quite a lot of tension, but there isn’t very much right now.” One earlier conflict was sparked by a former director of Hoover said to have noted that Hoover was in Stanford, but not of Stanford.

The same former director would also rally donors to the conservative-leaning think tank by quoting Stanford professors. “Some member of the faculty would make a wild statement of some kind and he’d go to a wealthy donor and say, ‘you see how necessary it is to have Hoover on campus when you have this kind of stuff,’” Shultz recalls. “People on the left didn’t realize they were great fundraisers for Hoover.”

But Hoover now “is less controversial” with a new director, joint appointments and Shultz’s own efforts to reduce tension. “It hasn’t necessarily gone away,” he says, “but it’s died down a great deal.”

The tensions at Hoover have served as an example of what to avoid for others in the field. “We benefit a lot from the earlier experience of Hoover,” says Murray Weidenbaum. “Those of us who head university-based think tanks go out of our way to avoid creating a gap—and if there is a gap, to bridge it.”

Great Impact But Hard to Quantify

One reason think tanks have become more influential is a greatly increased ability to disseminate their messages in an interconnected world, along with having the resources to carry out sophisticated research. The computer revolution increased the impact of think tanks “because technology made institutions like this one more powerful,” Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment notes. “One of the effects of the Internet was to kind of lower the relative volume of the most important voice [government] and to raise the impact of smaller voices—for example, think tanks.”

That voice is also magnified by computer-aided research, which eases the task of keeping an eye on government activities or analyzing policy. Mathews remembers that when she was at the World Resources Council, an analysis of endangered habitats was done “by two young people on a laptop, which before would have required 100 people using a mainframe computer and a lot more time.”

Robert S. Brookings, founder of two institutes and a school that merged in 1927 to form the Brookings Institution. Making sure that their work reaches decision makers is the goal of think tanks—and it is often achieved. The critical analysis disseminated by think tanks can have great impact on a member of Congress with a limited staff. “I just used them constantly,” recalls Lee Hamilton, currently President and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Brookings, AEI, Heritage, Cato and all the others pour out papers...by the truckload....They have new ideas and the relevance to the problem to serve as kind of an intellectual reservoir for the policymaker. The problems we have in government today are so difficult and so complicated,” Hamilton says, “that you need help as a policymaker—and think tanks supply that.”

Hamilton’s service on the landmark 9/11 Commission demonstrated a vital contribution of these institutions in the fight against terrorism. The 9/11 panel encountered many people in the think tank world “who are [deeply concerned] about the way to make the American people safer,” he says. “You’ll find some real experts on very technical matters” from detecting nuclear material to border controls.

The kind of company think tanks keep can be found in a Congressional Research Service report. The report elevated the importance of think tank ideas by noting “a sense of urgency to utilize public diplomacy to the maximum extent possible was expressed by top level officials, think tanks, and the 9/11 Commission.”

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) points out that think tanks also provided significant expertise for the well-known Iraq Study Group that he fostered. Indeed, think tanks have long claimed a role in some of the most important U.S. government policy questions, from Brookings and the post-World War II Marshall Plan to Cato and the notion to privatize Social Security advanced during the Bush administration.

But it’s often difficult to actually measure think tank impact, acknowledges Lisa Shields, Vice President of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Because we’re in the business of ideas, it’s quite hard to trace with real accuracy where an idea came from and whether it had an impact on government,” she says. “So some of this is anecdotal.”

“There aren’t DNA tests in this business,” adds Weidenbaum. “The bottom line is influencing public policy.” He reveals another way in which the Washington think tanks sell their intellectual wares. The “newest wrinkle” for think tanks is to hold briefings on Capitol Hill for congressional staff and sometimes even members of Congress. “They’re not as influential as they like to think,” Weidenbaum suggests, “but they’re far more influential than my colleagues in academia want to admit.”

A Revolving Door That Renews Intellectual Vigor

A high-level Washington appointment can be all-consuming work for four or eight years. One critical role played by think tanks is to provide an idea haven for individuals coming out of the twenty-four-hour demands of serving in a presidential administration. “Some people come out of government and into Brookings and spend that time recharging their intellectual batteries,” notes William Antholis. “And sometimes they go back in.”

This practice is often referred to as a revolving door. But Strobe Talbott actually sees it as a “two-way” revolving door. Just as he was preparing to lose U.N. Ambassador Rice and other Brookings scholars to Barack Obama, Talbott was simultaneously wooing outgoing members of the Bush administration to come to Brookings. “The way we can replenish the freshness of the intellectual [life] in the institution is to bring in somebody from government.”

During their respite, those whose political party is out of power can actually think in a way that isn’t possible in government leadership with its “pressure just to keep paper moving, meetings going, unscheduled crises, numerous mini-crises,” says Talbott. As an intellectual breather, Talbott offers “a short- or long-term landing place for people who have been exhausted by the process of government,” but are still very interested in issues.

John Bolton, now in his second stint at the American Enterprise Institute between top State Department and U.N. posts, says time at a think tanks offers intellectual preparation to face the inevitable crises. “Henry Kissinger once said that being in government means spending intellectual capital, and that you cannot regain it until you leave,” Bolton explains. “Certainly, in the national security area, there is little or no time for reflective thinking...Time outside the government in a real think tank or a university helps provide a basis to respond to the unknown once [you are serving] in government.”

The need to relax and contemplate away from the crisis atmosphere applies even at the very highest levels. For George Shultz, who was also served as Secretary of Labor (1969 to 1970) and as Secretary of the Treasury (1972 to 1974), being Secretary of State from 1982 to 1989 “was a tremendous learning opportunity. You’re drinking from a firehose of information and events,” he says. “But you don’t have a lot of time to reflect on it. You do here.”

Shultz returned to Stanford University and the Hoover Institution “because I wanted to write about my experience as Secretary of State and it’s a major undertaking if you do it right. That’s what Hoover is about, trying to get something worthwhile written that has an impact.”

The transition from government official to analyst offers several advantages ranging from a less frenetic environment to an opportunity to stretch one’s thinking, according to P.J. Crowley. “There’s a lot more sanity in the think tank world than there is in government. You’re not on the treadmill as much,” he says. “It is a chance to step back, to actually think. If you’re in government, you’re dealing with those boundaries that have already been set. In a think tank, you start with a blank piece of paper.”

Those coming from the think tank world can supply fresh perspective, government insiders note. At the State Department, that long-term view is often overshadowed by “always dealing with the crisis du jour,” says the Department’s Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood. As a career diplomat, Wood has not worked for a think tank, but has worked with numerous senior officials from think tanks who migrate to the State Department in Washington. He appreciates the contribution they can bring to government.

“It’s extremely useful to have people from that kind of background in policymaking positions,” Wood says. Think tank scholars are able “to look backward” to help find “the best way to go forward.” Woods adds that these scholars also have a good sense of how to put a crisis in perspective. He says, “That’s one of the added values they bring into the building.”

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is so associated with Stanford and Hoover that she made clear her plans to return to campus even before leaving office. As Secretary of State, Wood notes that she brought perspective while seeking out views from “the think tank policy community in Washington...It’s always important to have a set of fresh eyes from
the outside.”

Other Cabinet secretaries with critical tasks also turn to think tanks for advice. During the Bush administration, P.J. Crowley points out that he and several think tank colleagues were brought in to share ideas with then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff in a standing quarterly breakfast.

The Media is Often the Message

Perhaps the biggest competition in the think tank world is for the airwaves and column space. The tanks compete for network television exposure, newspaper space and web presence. Think tank events are a staple of programming on the C-SPAN public affairs network. Researchers can get media training on how to come across on camera for major networks or news stations.

In fact, a scholar’s ability to generate media coverage may make a difference in whether she or he can fund a project. “It helps,” notes the oft-quoted Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “Funders are looking for ideas, but they want those ideas to get out there in the public.”

While private influence with a member of Congress can be another route to success, Ornstein says public attention allowed him to get ideas “into the mainstream” that became part of the well-known McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation.

Ornstein’s facility with the media is legendary in Washington. For decades, his clever comments and popular research efforts have earned him the title of the “king of quotes.” Reporters on deadline know he will come through to fill in a hole in a story.

Ornstein is so ubiquitous that some editors have demanded national reporters stop quoting him. “I’ve had a number of newsrooms in which I have been banned for a period of time,” he says with a touch of pride. “I’ve had ‘quote quotas’ from The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times in the past.”

That public recognition also pays off in private influence on Capitol Hill. “It’s given me better access to politicians and in the policy world. Often if I call a Senate office, the person who answers the phone might know [my name], so you’re more likely to get through.”

While AEI’s Ornstein is noted for his media attention, another think tank claims it is the leader in institutional coverage. “Brookings has been the most quoted think tank as long as I’ve been alive,” says Brookings Vice President for Communications Melissa Skolfield. She cites a study by the liberal FAIR media watchdog group showing Brookings as the lead institution in garnering newspaper citations.

Leading think tanks are a valued source for the media, partly because of their expertise and partly since they can be honest about the naked reality behind top issues. Reporters from all over the world are looking to quote think tank experts who can talk far more freely than government officials. Some examples:

  • Carnegie Endowment officials logged 120 interview requests during the summer 2008 crisis between Russia and Georgia.
  • News articles and bylined columns on newspaper op-ed pages are ways think tanks can spread their ideas. “Being able to publish in the newspaper is a really critical element of an influential think thank,” explains Carnegie Endowment President Jessica Mathews.
  • A number of think tank scholars are syndicated or contract newspaper columnists, including E.J. Dionne of Brookings, as well as Sebastian Mallaby and Michael Gerson of the Council on Foreign Relations, who all appear in The Washington Post.
  • Others churn out op-eds regularly for a number of major publications. Former U.N. Ambassador Bolton, seen as a conservative lightning rod in the Bush administration, has turned into a prolific editorial-page contributor, especially on foreign policy and national security issues. In January, he hit the daily double for think tank influence by having his byline in both The Washington Post and The New York Times on the same day. Just a few days earlier, Bolton’s writing appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

But East Coast think tanks don’t have a monopoly on media coverage. Out in California, Hoover benefits from the time difference, with East Coast and Midwest reporters able to reach their experts for late comments as deadlines loom. “As things close down across the country, we’re still open,” Hoover spokeswoman Michele Horaney points out happily.

Hoover also tries to bridge the thousands of miles between Palo Alto and Washington or New York by bringing in many prominent journalists for brief study programs.

Think tanks are so respected by the media that they figured into a major 2008 presidential campaign hoax. A prankster from a fictitious think tank claimed to have leaked unflattering details about Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin from the McCain campaign—and his claim found its way into mainstream media outlets. The New York Times headlined a story about the think tank fraud, “A Senior Fellow at the Institute of NonExistence.”

In fact, think tank influence is seen as so pervasive that it has spawned all sorts of rumors and conspiracy theories. Just last fall, RAND had to post a notice on its web site denying it called for war with China. “Something like that can catch on in the blogs,” says RAND’s Kozberg, so RAND was quick to respond: “There is no such recommendation.”

There has been so much Internet speculation about its activities during its 60-year history that RAND actually posts preemptive responses on its web site. Examples range from its work on the question of UFOs to RAND’s denial that it advised Richard Nixon to cancel the 1972 election. However, RAND does admit its staff took LSD “trips” during a 1960s study of the psychedelic drug.

A Rare World of Bipartisanship

Think tanks compete in everything from media coverage to backstage influence at the White House and on Capitol Hill. But they are also famously cooperative, working together on issues and even lending each other a stage across ideological lines.

“It’s one of the rare bipartisan things in the city,” declares Congressman Wolf. “Congress is so partisan and so divided, the lack of civility is dominating the institution.” The result is increased effectiveness for research organizations. Think tanks “can play a very important role in the successes that I have,” the longtime Virginia Republican notes.

Though Brookings is not conservative, “when you go over there, you can find a scholar or somebody who’s been involved in government who can give you an honest answer,” Wolf says. “You can go to some of these places and get good research done and...bring people of different viewpoints together.”

Vol. 5 / No. 2 / Spring 2009