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In Washington's Marketplace of Ideas, Think Tanks Are the Strongest Sellers

November 06, 1988|Patrick Thomas | Patrick Thomas has been covering the vice presidential campaign and congressional politics.

WASHINGTON — After a grueling presidential campaign that seemed increasingly empty of ideas, men and women from think tanks, presumably full of ideas, are ready for work in the next Administration.

One important legacy of the Reagan Administration is that think tanks have become a growth business. "The number of people has more than doubled since 1980, and the number of institutes has more than tripled," said James Abellera, president of Think Tank Monitor, a consulting firm that tries to keep up with the tons of documents generated. No less than 65 are listed in the National Journal's Washington directory, the Capital Source.

As the field expanded, the concept evolved significantly. Scholarly detachment lost ground to partisan marketing of ideas. The distinction between public-policy research institutes and propaganda mills has become increasingly blurred.

One model Washington policy think tank is the Brookings Institution, which dates back to 1916. On a budget of more than $15 million, Brookings finances research, sponsors seminars and conferences and publishes books and periodicals on public-policy issues. Considered a 1970s refuge for exiles of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations, Brookings was eclipsed in the early 1980s by more conservative think-tanks with ties to Ronald Reagan.

Many people expected Stanford University's Hoover Institution, a blue-chip conservative tank, to supplant Brookings and other liberal institutes as a source of policy ideas for the Reagan Administration, but it didn't turn out that way. Instead, Hoover found itself up against two strong competitors based in Washington--the scholarly, conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, and the aggressively partisan Heritage Foundation. The contrast between these two illustrates the evolution of think tanks in the Reagan years.

Judge Robert H. Bork, who returned to AEI this year to write a book about constitutional law, explained, "AEI is like an excellent faculty without students--the best possible arrangement." Among his colleagues are Nixon-Ford economic adviser Herbert M. Stein, former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and neo-conservative founding father Irving Kristol. At least two dozen current or one-time AEI scholars, including former White House communications director David R. Gergen, held high-level Reagan posts. These are activist intellectuals, many of them neo-conservative Democrats, who 20 years ago might have been content to be on a college campus.

A non-conservative AEI fellow, political scientist William Schneider, explained, "The reason I am at a think tank is simple: Universities have become uncongenial to public-policy research. Academic disciplines have become narrow and specialized. I write for a general audience. You can't do that at universities anymore. Think tanks have emerged to fill a function that universities no longer serve. I would imagine that's why most people are here."

But another reason is proximity to power, which also handicapped California's Hoover Institution. Washington-based conferences and seminars offer frequent opportunities to mingle with government officials. In an increasingly result-oriented culture, that's important.

Yet, while AEI supplied the most high-level staffers to the Administration, the upstart Heritage Foundation claimed the largest share of policy triumphs, thanks in large part to its introduction of an aggressive marketing style. Founded in 1973, with a $250,000 grant from Joseph Coors, Heritage carefully cultivated ties with Reagan and Edwin Meese III before the election. Its academic credentials were thin, but its slickly packaged volume, "Mandate for Leadership," proposed 2,000 specific policy suggestions. More than half, including the 1981 tax cut and the space-based Strategic Defense Initiative, wound up on the Reagan agenda.

Heritage followed up with a propaganda blitz that transformed the idea of what think tanks can be. Traditionally, academic tanks along AEI and Brookings lines turned out thick volumes that were translated into excerpts for institution magazines like AEI's Public Policy or the Brookings Review. Heritage introduced memo-length papers, called "backgrounders," circulated by the thousands to key policy-makers, and followed up by inundating newspapers with Op-Ed pieces.

"Heritage can crank out a study in two weeks," said Stanley N. Wellborn, Brookings spokesman. "We might take 18 months. Our studies tend to be more thoughtful and analytical--book-length."

Heritage Research Director Burton Yale Pines said, "If a Heritage backgrounder can't be read during a cab ride from Capitol Hill to Dulles Airport, we've failed."

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