Saturday, November 19, 2016

Economist on "Worried Wonks" at Think Tanks in New Trump Era

The Economist magazine has a new piece entitled "Why Think Tanks Are Concerned About a Trump Administration."

Here are some excerpts:
All across the triangle from Dupont Circle to the White House and Capitol Hill, Washington, DC think-tank staff arrived at work on November 9th with bloodshot eyes. The news of a Russian-based internet attack on some of their colleagues in the Brookings Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations was some small consolation that they remained important and relevant to the Cosy Bear hacker group, at least. But the evidence closer to home was less reassuring. There are 397 think-tanks in the city, each incubating ideas for new policies and frequently incubating the policymakers themselves during periods out of power. In the run-up to a vote, they usually provide the fodder for candidate proposals as well as material to condemn ideas from the other side. But in this election, the system stuttered badly, and it has the wonks worried.
The election result was a shock for think-tank fellows because most are left-leaning. For all many think-tanks are meant to be non-partisan to preserve their tax status, their staff live in a liberal town and their fellows usually have post graduate degrees, which means they are part of a group that identifies Democratic 57% to 35%. 
But it is more than that: think-tank employees are part of the American political establishment, and the election season was a repudiation of establishment presidential candidates in the Republican primary as well as in the November general election. That was one reason (beyond the offensive absurdity of many of his statements) why Donald Trump was unpopular even amongst right-leaning policy shops. Danielle Pletka, the vice president of the American Enterprise Institute which is home to Lynne Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, called Mr Trump an idiot. 
The candidate felt no more respect for DC experts than they felt for him. Names of people working to advise Mr Trump on policy proved almost as elusive as the candidate’s tax returns. Numerous attempts by non-partisan think-tanks to engage were ignored or rebuffed by the campaign. Compare the Democratic presidential candidate: “Brookings” appears 1,469 times in the emails from Hillary Clinton’s account released by the State Department and 484 times in the emails from John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chair (and former think tank head) that were provided to Wikileaks. Three prominent think-tanks in the city are run by former Clinton staff members. Mrs Clinton's campaign had scores of policy groups, many with scores of members, many from the DC policy community: the campaign’s own best guess on the number of people working on foreign policy proposals alone during the primary was “several hundred.” 

The piece goes on to point out a very serious issue facing a number of think tanks in the new Trump era.  "...They are also worried about their own relevance: a think tanker's job is to influence policy.  What is policymakers don't want to be influenced?"

But the piece also points out that more establishment Republicans in Congress are embracing Mr. Trump, meaning that "Republican establishment figures in think tanks have cover to do the same."

In other words, "life for policy wonks goes on - as will the production of policy papers, op-eds, and blogs," notes the Economist.  The magazine also suggests that the Trump win could make think tanks even more necessary as they rush to fight against many parts of Trump's policies.

Think Tank Watch should note that outside of think tanks like Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institution, and the Cato Institute, think tank staffers do indeed largely identify as Democrats, as a past US News & World Report analysis shows.