Billionaire Liberals Seek To Fund Idea Mills

By E.J. Kessler

Published January 21, 2005, issue of January 21, 2005.
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A handful of ultra-wealthy Jewish liberals are resolving to do battle with conservatives by providing a big infusion of cash to progressive think tanks and idea mills.

New York-based financier George Soros, Cleveland insurance king Peter Lewis and Oakland, Calif., banking magnates Herb and Marian Sandler made the pledge at a meeting in San Francisco last month.

The donors are remaining mum about the extent of their involvement and haven’t specified any institution or individuals who are likely to benefit from their largesse.

“Mr. Lewis, the Sandlers and Mr. Soros have been in discussions about their philanthropic efforts and how their policy goals are challenged by organizations funded by large donations from the right,” said David Dreyer, a spokesman for the donors. “They are continuing to talk about what to do about that. They have reached no agreements, and they have no further comment.”

A report in The Financial Times quoted an unnamed source with knowledge of the San Francisco meeting as saying that the wealthy donors would put more than $100 million over 15 years behind the effort to bolster and expand the network of liberal institutions.

During the 2004 election, Soros, Lewis and the Sandlers comprised three of the top four donors to so-called 527 committees, giving $23,450,000, $22,997,220 and $13,008,459, respectively, according to the Web site of the Center for Responsive Politics. The funds were seen as playing a key role in minimizing the impact of the Bush campaign’s large fund-raising advantage over the Kerry camp.

The new pledge to support liberal causes represents a potentially important infusion into the coffers of the Democratic policy establishment, which generally has failed to keep pace with the massive investments that Republicans have made during the past quarter-century into their intellectual infrastructure, including two influential Washington-based conservative think tanks: the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute.

The new effort also is likely to keep the Hungarian-born Soros in the American political spotlight. The Holocaust-era refugee, who came to America in 1956, long has funded efforts to promote democratization and build civil society in the formerly communist East bloc and in developing nations. Soros had kept a relatively low political profile in the United States until the last presidential campaign, when he emerged as arguably the most important private citizen in the effort to unseat President Bush.

Soros has faulted Bush in particular for his foreign policy, arguing among other things that it has stoked antisemitism. “There is a resurgence of antisemitism in Europe. The policies of the Bush administration and the Sharon administration contribute to that,” Soros said at a conference of Jewish philanthropists in 2003, according to a report filed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He added, “If we change that direction, then antisemitism also will diminish.”

For years, antisemites worldwide and leaders in some other countries have criticized Soros and his firm for speculating in currencies. In 2004, however, with his support of Kerry and liberal groups, Soros became a top target of Republican officials, who launched a series of attacks against him. During one interview with Fox News, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, suggested, though he admitted he had no evidence, that Soros might have made his fortunes through the illegal drug trade.

Soros’s continuing interest in American politics is not entirely unexpected. Last year, Soros, who has written a book to promote the idea that President Bush and the Republicans are ruining the country, said in an interview with USA Today, “I’m ready to put my money where my mouth is” to fund an array of liberal and Democratic efforts.

Soros and his fellow donors heaped most of their largesse during the 2004 campaign on three such groups: America Coming Together, a get-out-the-vote drive; The Media Fund, which ran anti-Bush ads, and, a liberal Internet-based advocacy group. Soros and Lewis gave $12,050,000 and $16 million, respectively, to the Joint Victory Campaign, which funded ACT and The Media Fund, and $5 million combined to

Democrats reacted warmly to the news that the donors were broadening their efforts.

“Well, it’s beyond serious dispute that the progressive movement needs rethinking and rebuilding,” said Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist who was the spokesman for ACT and The Media Fund. “It seems to me that these guys have the vision, the generosity, the savvy and the toughness to play a significant role in that.”

The question of how to spend the promised funds is likely to become a part of the wider fight within the party over whether to pursue more liberal or centrist policies.

Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, said the effort would generate the most success if it supported a broad range of Democratic views. “The primary issue is whether they’ll fund ideas that are cutting edge and play against type,” he said. “Democrats enjoy the best success when they’ve advanced ideas that confound the stereotypes that they’re soft-headed liberals. Conservatives outnumber liberals by a big margin. The task for progressives is to reach out to the center.”

That task might be complicated by the donors’ notoriety. Republicans often have taken aim at the donors, deriding them as “billionaire leftists” and extremists in fund-raising appeals designed to tap the anger of their conservative base. The Republican National Committee did not pass up an opportunity to drive home this point, sending a reporter a raft of opposition research on Soros’s positions on assisted suicide, voting rights for felons and reducing American sovereignty, as well as some of his more controversial statements, such as his belief that a “supremacist ideology” guides the Bush administration.

“George Soros is an out-of-the-mainstream individual that has advocated drug legalization, needle exchange programs, assisted suicide, among other extremely troubling positions,” RNC spokesman Danny Diaz said. “He has even made disparaging comments about the men and women in uniform defending our nation and democracy. Mr. Soros and his radical views are not taken seriously by the American people, and no amount of money will convince voters to support them.”

Even so, denizens of the right-wing policy establishment appeared to relish any intellectual badinage the liberals’ efforts might produce.

“I’m in favor of a vigorous competition in the marketplace of ideas. I think it’s edifying and clarifying,” Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a terrorism-focused think tank, wrote in an e-mail message. “Not too long ago, I debated Morton Halperin, director of the Washington office of the Open Society Institute, which is Soros-funded. The debate was before a live audience at Constitution Hall in Philadelphia and broadcast on National Public Radio. Mort and I disagreed on many points — but not all. I thought it was a good and civil dialogue. I learned and I benefited. I hope our audience did, too.

“Think tanks play a crucial role in the consideration and formulation of public policy,” May said. “I’m the president of a think tank dedicated to combating terrorism and the ideologies that drive terrorism. Those who work here and those who support us believe also in advancing democratic values and institutions, promoting freedom, women’s rights and religious pluralism…. I welcome Soros, Lewis and others to join in the conversation, to sell their ideas in a free (but expensive) marketplace. I salute him for putting his money where his mouth is.”

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