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Think That Think Tanks Can Be Bought? Not So Fast.

The Center for American Progress takes issue with recent TNR piece

The February 19, 2013, piece by Ken Silverstein entitled "The Great Think Tank Bubble," which described the Center for American Progress (CAP) as "Heritage's liberal counterpart," misses the type of fact-checking us think tanks are so particular about. Silverstein's article decries the lack of independence and partisan fealty of modern think tanks but the author cannot break free of the most common practice of contemporary political criticism and searches for false equivalency among the actions of conservatives and progressives.

Not even the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin disputes that Jim DeMint's decision to leave the Senate and take over the Heritage Foundation pushes that group more into the realm of politics than policy research. But to simply sweep the CAP into the story of Heritage's new personnel bears no resemblance to our record or the facts. 

To demonstrate our lack of independence from the White House, Mr. Silverstein chooses the example of our supposedly varying levels of criticism and support for the war in Afghanistan during the Bush and Obama administrations. He claims that we thought the war was a "bungled failure" under President Bush but "became far more supportive" when President Obama took over as commander-in-chief. To support his argument, he chooses two postings available on the CAP website: A 2003 guest post from a Carnegie Endowment scholar and an unnamed statement posted in response to President Obama's 2011 speech announcing plans for a troop drawdown in Afghanistan.

Mr. Silverstein wouldn't have had to look very hard to find an actual CAP-authored criticism of how the war in Afghanistan was being waged during the Bush administration. CAP scholars were repeatedly critical of the Bush administration's neglect of Afghanistan at the expense of Iraq and authored a groundbreaking 2007 report called "The Forgotten Front" that called for a renewed focus on fighting the Taliban and rooting out Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the broad strokes, that is what the Obama administration chose to do upon taking office in 2009. We helped lead the administration to this policy, not the other way around.

Even though we advocated for the policy the Obama administration largely adopted, we remained critical of how it was being implemented, arguing that more troops alone were not sufficient absent a broader political and economic strategy to help end more than three decades of conflict in Afghanistan. So when the president announced at his speech in 2011 that he was changing strategy, it does not seem unusual to us that we would give some measure of support. In the first paragraph of the statement Mr. Silverstein cites, however, we go on to say: "Yet many important questions about Afghanistan, including our core objectives, future costs, how military operations will support the political and military transition between now and 2014, and our relations with Pakistan, remain unanswered." So to recap, Afghanistan is not an area where we have been inconsistent and our position depends on who is in office; quite the opposite is the case. Afghanistan is an area where we developed a policy proposal, political leaders adopted it, and we held to our views regardless of who was in power.

Mr. Silverstein chose to ignore the areas where CAP ideas and Obama administration ideas part ways. From disagreements on the ozone rule to an aggressive push to counter Obama administration overtures on raising the Medicare eligibility age, to our fierce advocacy, led by Lawrence J. Korb, CAP senior fellow and former assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan, to cut the bloated Pentagon budget, this piece ignores that our work is anchored in our ideas, not whoever occupies the Oval Office. There are of course areas where we agree with the Obama administration because they are proposing policies we support. The fact that we now align with the Obama administration on issues from marriage equality to Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal is not evidence of our fealty but rather a demonstration of our impact and ability to move the policy debate in a direction in which the Obama administration has joined.

We have not always succeeded. We remain critical of the expansion of leasing for oil and gas development coupled with a near absence of conservation on public lands and of the decision to allow drilling in the Arctic. We have long criticized the missteps that led to the failure to close Guantanamo. And we believe the climate crisis requires more urgency and action.   

Over the past 10 years, CAP has changed the policy landscape by producing ideas and policies that matter—from a plan to end the Iraq war to a universal health care plan launched in 2004, long before any Democrats would touch it. Mr. DeMint and his brand of partisan extremism may tarnish the image of the conservative ideas industry, but the Center for American Progress will continue to build on the same framework on which we were established: Good ideas matter. And those ideas can change the country no matter who is in office.