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June 20, 2006

Hoping to emulate conservative success, Dem young guns launch journal of ideas

Reflecting a demand for new ideas in the Democratic Party, two young intellectuals have founded a quarterly periodical modeled after influential conservative journals like Commentary and The National Interest.

Kenneth Baer and Andrei Cherny, both speechwriters and authors who have worked within the New Democrat movement, will launch Democracy: A Journal of Ideas today at the National Press Club. They will appear on a panel with Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol, American Prospect Editor Michael Tomasky and Francis Fukuyama of The American Interest.

“We think that the party is rich in tactics and poor in ideas,” said Baer, who worked as a speechwriter for former Vice President Al Gore. “What we really need for long-term success is deep, serious thinking about how we’re going to apply long-held progressive values to new challenges.”

For months, Baer and Cherny have argued that Democrats were losing the battle of ideas to well-established conservative policy journals.

“I had started thinking about where all of the conservative ideas, for better or worse, had come from,” Cherny said. “Every big idea — Social Security privatization, supply-side economics, preemption, faith-based initiatives — had come out of one of their journals in their intellectual infrastructure.”

Over lunch last year with Baer at Mackey’s Public House on L Street, Cherny proposed starting their own journal to help foster debate across the political spectrum. The first issue appeared online yesterday at www.democracyjournal.org.

“It’s a little bit of new blood being pumped into the moderate part of the party, which we regard as a good thing,” said Matt Bennett, an official with Third Way, a moderate Democratic communications strategy group. “We are contributors to Democracy, and we’ll do everything we can to help them succeed.”

Baer and Cherny hired Clay Risen, a former assistant editor at The New Republic, to be Democracy Journal’s managing editor. They tapped the New Democrat donor base to raise a “lean budget” of less than $1 million to fund the project, Cherny said.

The first issue features articles by prominent young intellectuals. Jedediah Purdy, an author and law professor, writes about birth rates in foreign countries; Jason Furman, an economist, analyzes how the federal government inefficiently subsidizes health insurance; and Kathryn Roth-Douquet makes a case for liberals’ children to enlist in the military. Former Rep. Brad Carson (D-Okla.), who was a Rhodes scholar, penned a book review.

In the journal’s second issue, a mix of established thinkers, such as Harvard professor Joseph Nye and Middle East guru Dennis Ross, and rising stars — Suzanne Nossel, an analyst with the Security and Peace Institute, and Karen Kornbluh, policy director for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) — will write on foreign policy.

Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the New Democrat Network, who has contributed resources to Democracy Journal, said, “This is not part of the echo chamber. It’s something much more long-term. It has the potential to be very, very influential.”

Largely excluded from academia and from Congress for most of the 20th century, conservatives built the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the libertarian Cato Institute. Conservative intellectuals also founded big-think magazines such as The National Interest and Commentary.

Many Democrats now realize that they had ceded too much ground in the world of ideas since losing the White House in 2000.

“Progressives and Democrats find themselves without a terribly modern infrastructure to help spark the revival of ideas that we need,” Rosenberg said. “We have to develop more institutions. We don’t know which will become our version AEI or [the] Drudge Report or [Rush] Limbaugh. But we know that we need more tools.”

After the disastrous midterm elections in 2002, Democrats have started several political, media and policy outfits, including the Center for American Progress (CAP), a more traditional liberal think tank modeled after the Heritage Foundation; Air America, a liberal radio network; and Third Way, an 18-month-old group that coaches Democratic candidates in developing and presenting their message.

Meanwhile, pollster Stan Greenberg announced yesterday the launch of thedemocraticstrategist.org, a website designed to serve as an information clearinghouse for left-leaning policy.

In addition to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), and the 10-year-old New Democrat Network (NDN), numerous left-of-center blogs have popped up since 2001.

The DLC-PPI successfully challenged Democratic Party orthodoxy in the early 1990s, and Clinton used the once edgy think tank as a vehicle to establish his centrist credentials in 1991 before running for president. But several sources noted that the influence of the DLC and PPI had waned since Clinton left office, opening doors for such ventures as Third Way and Democracy Journal.

“I think it’s a statement that we’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re going to have a vibrant 20th-century progressivism,” Rosenberg said. “More of the children of Clintonism and New Democrats are growing up. To me that’s very exciting.”

Will Marshall, PPI’s president and editor of With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty, said that Baer and Cherny’s magazine is “a good sign of intellectual ferment across the radical center and shows that there is a serious appetite for ideas and not just striking attitudes. We’re friendly and supportive” of their effort.


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