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In the tanks

Geoffrey S. Underwood (United Press International)/WASHINGTON -- With a conservative back in the White House after eight years of a New Democrat president, conservative think tanks now find themselves on unfamiliar terrain and having to map new strategies.

The question: What precisely is the role of an ideological think tank when a president of like ideology takes office?

The answer? Elusive, at least initially, even for the conservative bellwether Heritage Foundation.

During the 1980s, Heritage luxuriated in an eight-year honeymoon with President Ronald Reagan, essentially writing the president's policy scripts and basking in the favor of the GOP conservative movement.

Expecting to continue the ideological love-fest with Reagan's successor George Bush the elder, the foundation surprisingly found itself ideologically estranged from Bush I. Increasingly frustrated and critical of his policies, Heritage, in a surreal turn, then found its criticisms also being voiced by then-candidate Bill Clinton.

However, in opposing the policies of the elder Bush, Heritage may have discovered the key to retaining power, influence and relevance for all conservative think tanks during a conservative administration: Strategic Criticism.

With a fresh start under president George W. Bush, Stuart Butler, Heritage's vice president of domestic and economic policy studies, appreciates the opportunity -- and the need -- to sustain itself in the conservative atmosphere by actively disapproving of the conservative administration when it disagrees. "Heritage is an institution that realizes we are in a certain situation that we have to capitalize on without being captured by it."

Butler's statement wholly encapsulates the dangers inherent in having an ideological collaborator in the Oval Office. To be in the opposition is straightforward -- a think tank combats everything it disagrees with and gives sparse praise to measures it supports. And to be in the opposition is also to be visible and vigorous: a think tank opposed to a sitting administration's politics is perpetually embattled, perpetually energized, and perpetually fighting to get its critical message out to the media, to the party faithful, and to the public.

But if an institution is seen as too supportive it can become irrelevant. As Joseph Lehman, vice president of the conservative Mackinac Center in Michigan, puts it: "if two people agree on everything, then one person is not needed."

So in order to maintain their clout, conservative think tanks must be sure to criticize a conservative president. This is not just bluster, however. Butler, in fact, views criticism as a strategic necessity. "Criticism must be done, not for its own sake, but only when it is critically needed and is the best way to move an issue forward."

Mike Frank, Heritage's vice president of government relations, views the role more pragmatically: "It can work to the advantage of someone ... in the administration" to have a friendly critic, he says. "For example, on the Bush tax cut, there are those who say it is too large and others too small. That puts the president in the advantageous position of being somewhere in the middle and appearing to take a more moderate and rational approach."

This approach is not limited to conservatives or Republicans. Nor is it limited to tactical gains. Strategic Criticism can actually help an incumbent president if it remains focused on larger issues and the consequences of policies over the long haul. As president of the new Democrat Progressive Policy Institute, Will Marshall targeted his think tank's sometimes critical message to new Democrat president Bill Clinton. He notes that "governing is very much an issue of dealing with the crisis as hand. What think tanks can best provide is strategic and long-term thinking that is not in high demand when the Administration is dealing with the issue of the day ... There is not a lot of time for an administration to think creatively while in office."

There can also be gains for a think tank when it plays the role of critic to incumbent friends. When the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy was formed in 1988, among its most ardent supporters was then-state Senate Majority Leader John Engler. After Engler won the governorship in 1990 and subsequently enacted a number of legislative proposals that originated at Mackinac, political watchers expected Mackinac to regularly treat the new governor with kid gloves.

However, when Engler developed a program of tax credits and abatements that benefited businesses but required new state bureaucracies, Mackinac lambasted the governor in a 1995 study and launched a full-scale media campaign to kill the proposal. Though Engler's proposal eventually passed, the critical Mackinac study gained support among state legislators and has been cited as a key factor in Governor Engler's first legislative defeats.

The think tank's opposition also had some unexpected results. "After we launched the study critical of the Governor's proposal, one senator's chief of staff told me there would be soap on the windows of the Mackinac Center within 18 months," meaning the institution would be closed because of its public opposition, says Lehman. Instead, Mackinac's reputation soared and media outlets began to pay attention to the fledgling think tank.

Lehman notes that "after our opposition we became universally recognized as an independent voice for policy critique," compelling even the editor of the liberal Detroit Free Press to acknowledge their independence from the governor.

Since then, Mackinac's employee roster has increased from 10 to 30; its annual budget from $600,000 to $3.2 million; and it has built and paid for a $2.4 million headquarters -- all while the short-sighted senate chief of staff remains in the same job. Referring to that individual's prediction that Mackinac would be out of business with "soap on the windows," Lehman reports that he "gave the chief of staff his commemorative bar of soap a long time ago."

The public -- and some politicians -- may expect conservative think tanks to play the same role as political parties, bolstering a chief executive's proposals even if they oppose them. However, more seem to be realizing that strategic criticism can play an even stronger role in furthering principled ideology.

Properly done, criticism can encourage a president further along ideological lines, signal where retreat is expected, help to create a perception of moderation on the President's part, or provide long-term thinking for an administration forced to work on short term issues.

(c) 2001 United Press International

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