The Center for American Progress is a Washington, D.C.-based progressive think tank. CAP describes itself on its website as “an independent nonpartisan educational institute dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through progressive ideas and action” in such areas as “energy, national security, economic growth and opportunity, immigration, education, and health care.” The center boasts extensive ties to donor George Soros, the Democratic Party and both the Clinton and Obama Administrations.
The Center for American Progress think tank and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the Center’s 501(c)(4) arm, were founded by former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta (2013 compensation $244,874). Podesta served as President of CAP until 2013, when he left to join the White House staff as a Senior Counselor to the President. Podesta was succeeded by Neera Tanden (2013 compensation, $316,346). Tanden was a policy advisor to both the Bill and Hillary Clinton Presidential campaigns and the Barack Obama Presidential campaign. The Action Fund lobbying companion is run by former Democratic Representative Tom Perriello (compensation $151,146).
The twin groups, Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund were conceived in 2002 by a six-person “brain trust” appointed by then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe (left) from within the DNC. McAuliffe compiled the group from three of his DNC staff, two high-ranking Clinton White House officers – Chief of Staff John Podesta and Political Director Don Sosnik – and former Clinton White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes.
Both the Center and the Action Fund were conceived as a way to cope with funding restrictions set forth in the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act, as large-sum donations from major individual Democratic donors were limited by the new law. The Center and its Action fund would operate within the limits of the law and provide a way for donors to gain access to and exact influence on policymaking.
The Center’s foundational staff connected early with Mark Schmitt, a program officer in the Open Society Institute, an organization founded and funded by George Soros. Although Soros had expressed no interest in funding a think tank or policy organization, Schmitt obtained discretionary funds from Open Society’s Governance and Public Policy program to commission a study entitled, Progressive Think Tanks: What Exists, What’s Missing.
The study concluded that, while progressive policymakers and influential progressive thinkers were numerous, they were often segmented from practical political operatives, media and grassroots organizers. Without a foundational infrastructure, the study found, “people with broad cross-cutting experience, adept in all these ways at once, and capable of thoughtful intervention, are rare.” The study suggested that a large, over-arching organization or governance system was needed to connect and facilitate the cooperation of policymakers and political operatives.
The study was passed to Morton H. Halperin, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Johnson Administration and a senior staff member of the National Security Council under Presidents Nixon and Clinton, hired for the Open Society Institute from the Council on Foreign Relations. Upon reading the report, Halpering counseled George Soros to reconsider providing foundational funding for a think tank. He also began work on recruiting individuals to lead the potential think tank’s staff, including John Podesta and Harold Ickes. Podesta and Halperin incorporated “The American Majority Institute” in 2002 and re-named it the Center for American Progress in 2003. George Soros pledged $3 million in startup money in 2002 and gave $2.5 million. Herb and Marion Sandler provided $500,000 for startup costs in 2002 and increased their contribution to $2 million the following year. Podesta made CAP a major factor in the 2008 elections, filling hundreds of open administration positions with CAP affiliates. A November 2008 article in Time stated that “not since the Heritage Foundation helped guide Ronald Reagan’s transition in 1981 has a single outside group held so much sway”. CAP has also been generous in assisting allies. In 2004, CAP mentored and helped launch Media Matters for America, and has a 31-staffer in-house publishing arm that encourages media to report on progressive agenda items. CAP has two blogs, Think Progress and Climate Progress, both of which serve to educate the public on and influence policy at the Federal level.
CAP receives a large percentage of its funding from foundations and organizations giving directly to progressive causes through a grant-making system. The top ten contributors are:
CAP and Think Progress have faced scrutiny for their silence toward retail giant Wal-Mart, which is uncommon in progressive circles. Both the liberal newsmagazine The Nation and the conservative Weekly Standard have reported that Wal-Mart had donated to CAP. The Washington Free Beacon estimates those donations at over $500,000 over a ten year period, citing a Wal-Mart webpage that is no longer active. CAP itself touted Wal-Mart as a partner in the ongoing debate over healthcare reform, particularly on the issue of a national employer mandate.
Follow this link to explore the Center for American Progress’s interactions with other think tanks, organizations, activists and donors.
CAP has functioned as a rehabilitative employment opportunity for progressive activists looking to escape public scrutiny.
The most notable case is that of former Obama Administration official Van Jones, who was tasked by the administration with coordinating “agencies and departments to advance the administration’s climate and energy initiatives.” Jones was revealed, by then Fox News host Glenn Beck, to have made incendiary remarks about Republicans and to have signed a petition in the New York Times asserting that then-President George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After being asked to resign from his post in the Administration, Jones joined CAP as a Senior Fellow for the “Green Opportunity Initiative, advising the center on environmental policy.”
The Center for American Progress’s web publication, Think Progress, was embroiled in a controversy in late 2011-early 2012 over language its bloggers used to characterize the United States’ relationship with Israel.
POLITICO reporter Ben Smith quoted a CAP analyst writing at a Think Progress subsite, Middle East Progress, as comparing Israel’s Gaza Policy to “segregation in the American South.” Smith also reported that unnamed Think Progress officials were reported as saying the Center’s goal was to open political space to President Obama’s left. CAP denied both reports. The article, which was initially drafted to demonstrate dissention within the ranks of liberal policy scholars, created a subsequent firestorm when Think Progress blogger Zaid Jilani Tweeted that “So DC ‘liberals’ are going to spend a lot of time defending Obama against the charge that he’s not supportive enough of Israeli apartheid.” The American Jewish Committee (AJC) responded to Jilani in the Jerusalem Post noting that “ “Referenes to Israeli ‘apartheid’ or ‘Israel-firsters’ are so false and hateful they reveal an ugly bias no serious policy center can countenance.” Jilani left ThinkProgress within the month, according to the Post.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a watchdog against anti-Semitism, also objected to the appropriateness of some ThinkProgress staffers’ comments. It warned against characterizing Americans who supported closer alignment with Israel as “Israel-Firsters and called troubling […] an accusation in a blog that the Israel lobby was marching America to war against Iran as it did with regard to Iraq.” ADL did acknowledge that one Think Progress blogger involved had apologized.
During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Think Progress published an allegation that 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain had plagiarized a Navy admiral in one of his speeches, only to retract the story within 24 hours. (McCain had used the disputed fragment in a speech before the admiral did, and the text was available on McCain’s Senate website.) POLITICO reporter Michael Calderone characterized the blog’s decision to publish the allegations without requesting comment from the McCain camp or accessing McCain’s publicly available Senate speech text as “remarkable.”
In a separate incident, a Think Progress blogger alleged that David Koch—a major benefactor of free-market causes and one-time Libertarian Party nominee for Vice President— had resigned from the “NIH cancer board” under pressure from Greenpeace after using his position to block the listing of formaldehyde as a carcinogen. As conservative blog Powerline.com details, Koch was appointed to the National Cancer Advisory Board in 2004, and his term expired in 2010. The board on which Koch served has no authority over the listing of carcinogens. Think Progress was forced to retract their claim.