international analysis and commentary

The think tank factor in recent US politics

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– This article is based on: “5th Estate: Think Tanks, Politics and Governance (Brooking Press 2016)”.

– Italian version here.

To gain insight into the 2016 US presidential election one needs to examine past elections and the important role think tank scholars play as advisors and surrogates in the campaigns of the leading candidates and what is known as the “revolving door” in American politics. The contributions that think tank scholars make to presidential candidacies can act as stepping stones into the administration.

Despite the risk of losing objectivity by siding with a candidate, advising a winning candidate can pay tremendous political dividends. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have both positioned themselves as anti-establishment “Washington outsiders” and while they have different tailors they are cut from the same populist cloth – nationalist (America and Americans first), nativist (anti-immigrant) and protectionist (anti-free trade). One should not be deceived by their outsider brand because both candidates have relied on the ultra-progressive and ultra-conservative wings of the Democratic and Republican parties and advisors and surrogates from “establishment” DC think tanks and foundations that are associated with the 1% political movement and the conservative Tea Party. The examples in this article from presidential campaigns are designed to illustrate the role that think tanks play in electoral politics in the US.

A think tank’s success and very survival is tied to its independence from the US government and political entanglements. Associating an institution too closely with a political party or politician can be dangerous. Robert Boorstin of the Center for American Progress (CAP) warns that when a think tank wades into the morass of party politics it often attaches its fortunes to a presidential candidate. If the candidate fails, Boorstin says, the institution will fail with him or her and can potentially lose funding and influence. In short, involvement in party politics can destroy a think tank. However, this does not mean that think tank scholars cannot work for presidential candidates. Many scholars do get involved with presidential campaigns. A presidential campaign is seen as an opportunity for the think tank to actively participate in the development of policies without overstepping boundaries. The simple reality is that think tanks can have significant influence on policies, personnel and the new president through the presidential campaigns.

In addition, think tanks are incentivized against public endorsements by American tax law, which requires think tanks to refrain from supporting a candidate in an election or overtly advocating on behalf of a specific piece of legislation. In order to keep their non-profit status and remain tax-exempt, these institutions must steer clear of party politics. The limits of these regulations have been tested in recent years as many of these institutions have taken on a more activist role in the pursuit of greater influence and impact.

The 2008 U S presidential campaign began with a call for foreign policy experience and ended with a dramatic response to the economic crisis. Republican candidate John McCain said, “I am suspending my campaign,” in order to demonstrate his willingness to rise above politics to respond to the financial crisis. If we look at the foreign policy expertise that candidates gather, it reveals the importance of foreign policy credibility on the campaign trail and the willingness of think tanks to attach their names to a particular candidate. The following section will focus on foreign policy advisors affiliated with the think tank community and whether or not they served as formal or informal advisors. It will not list every foreign policy advisor each candidate used. Individuals from the think tank community who endorsed but did not advise candidates will not be discussed.


The Republican ticke
t in the 2008 presidential election

John McCain

 An interesting characteristic of John McCain’s advisory team is just how many notable names from the foreign policy-making stage served as “informal” advisors. They included high profile figures such as Richard Armitage, former Deputy Secretary of State in the second Bush administration; Bernard Aronson, former Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs; Max Boot, Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow and former Wall Street Journal editorial page editor; Niall Ferguson, Harvard historian and Hoover Institution Senior Fellow; Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institution and Washington Post columnist; Henry A. Kissinger, President Richard Nixon and President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of State; and before his highly publicized endorsement of Barack Obama, General Colin L. Powell, President George W. Bush’s Secretary of State.

McCain’s formal advisors included Michael J. Green, former Asia Advisor to President George W. Bush and now Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS); Gary Schmitt, former Staff Director of the Senate Intelligence Committee and now an American Enterprise Institute scholar; and Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush, and now a counselor and trustee at CSIS.

Mike Huckabee

Governor Huckabee vowed to change “the tone and attitude” of US foreign policy while reaching out to the rest of the world. As a presidential candidate, Huckabee had one notable foreign policy advisor, Richard N. Haass. Haass currently serves as President of the Council on Foreign Relations and was formerly the State Department’s Director of Policy Planning from 2001 to 2003.[1]

Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney’s priorities concerning American foreign policy included strengthening the US military and economy, achieving energy independence, reenergizing civilian and interagency capabilities, and revitalizing alliances. A prominent scholar advising Romney on Latin American policy was Mark Falcoff. Falcoff was the American Enterprise Institute’s Latin America scholar emeritus and one-time consultant to President Ronald Reagan’s Commission on Central America.

Rudy Giuliani

Rudy Giuliani believed that the three major challenges confronting the next president in the realm of foreign policy were the following: winning the fight in terrorists’ war on global order; strengthening the international institutions that “the terrorists seek to destroy,” and extending the benefits generated by the international system to people worldwide. As a presidential candidate, Giuliani was advised by an impressive roster of think tank-associated personnel.

Charles Hill of the Hoover Institute was the campaign’s Chief Foreign Policy Advisor. Other notables included Gerard Alexander, an American Enterprise Institute visiting scholar; Peter Berkowitz, Hoover Institution Senior Fellow; Robert Conquest, a Soviet-era historian and former adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and a Hoover Institution researcher; Lisa Curtis, a Heritage Foundation Senior Research Fellow; and David Frum, a former Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush also advised Giuliani.[2] Kim R. Holmes, the Heritage Foundation’s Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, served as a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the campaign.[3] Furthermore, Stephen Yates, former Deputy Assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney for national security affairs and now a lobbyist and American Foreign Policy Council Senior Fellow, served as a Senior Asia Advisor to the campaign.[4]

The Hudson Institute boasted a large presence in the Giuliani campaign. Hudson Senior Fellow Charles Horner advised the campaign on Asian affairs.[5] Norman Podhoretz served on the campaign’s Senior Foreign Policy Advisory Board. Kenneth Weinstein, Hudson’s Chief Executive Officer served as a Foreign Policy Advisor. Finally from Hudson, S. Enders Wimbush, the Institute’s Director of Future Security Strategies, served as a Senior Public Diplomacy Advisor for the campaign.


The Democratic ticket
in the 2008 presidential election

Barack Obama

Barack Obama campaigned on a foreign policy platform that stated that “the security and well-being of each and every American is tied to the security and well-being of those who live beyond our borders. The United States should provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity.”[6] Indeed, the new President’s “first television interview” with the Arab network Al-Arabiya seemed to be the delivery of a campaign promise. Two key characteristics of Barack Obama’s campaign advisory team were the team’s association with President Bill Clinton and its ties to key think tanks. Obama’s advisors included numerous officials appointed under the Clinton administration as well as scholars affiliated with think tanks such as CSIS, the Brookings Institute, and the Center for American Progress.

Some advisors included Jeffrey Bader, former US Ambassador and President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council Asia specialist and then-head of Brookings’s China center; Ivo H. Daalder, National Security Council Director for European Affairs in the Clinton administration, a former Brookings Senior Fellow, and now US Ambassador to NATO; Richard Danzig, President Clinton’s Secretary of the Navy and now a CSIS fellow; Lawrence J. Korb, Assistant Secretary of Defense from 1981 to 1985 under Ronald Reagan and now a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress; Denis McDonough, Center for American Progress Senior Fellow and former Policy Adviser to Tom Daschle and Susan E. Rice, President Clinton’s Africa specialist at the State Department and National Security Council and now a Brookings Senior Fellow; and Mona Sutphen, former aide to President Clinton’s National Security Advisor Samuel R. Berger and to former United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson, once Managing Director of the business consultancy Stonebridge and former Deputy Chief of Staff in the Obama White House.[7]

Hillary Clinton

During her campaign, Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy stressed “multilateralism, with unilateralism as an option when absolutely necessary to protect our security or avert avoidable tragedy.”[8] Clinton pledged to work with international institutions like the United Nations. In the event that international bodies failed to act, she believed that the United States “should bring [international institutions] in line with the power realities of the twenty-first century and the basic values embodied in such documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”[9] As this country’s chief diplomat, former Secretary of State Clinton had the opportunity to turn her presidential campaign promises into action. For her campaign, Hillary Clinton had the unique advantage of drawing from her husband’s legion of experienced advisors. They included Chairwoman of the National Democratic Institute and President Clinton’s former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, his former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, and former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

Hillary Clinton also benefitted from her informal advisors, including Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Strobe Talbott, President of the Brookings Institution. Another Brookings presence was Martin S. Indyk, formerly President Clinton’s Ambassador to Israel and former Director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Moreover, the Center for Global Development’s President Nancy Birdsall was invited for a private meeting with the former Secretary Clinton before her confirmation hearing for detailed discussions on development policy.[10]

John Edwards

John Edwards sought a US foreign policy of reengagement and undertaking new diplomatic initiative to repair relations with American allies and other nations in the world, specifically England, the nations of the European Union, and Latin America. John Edwards received foreign policy advice from two think tank-affiliated advisors Barry M. Blechman and Irving N. Blickstein. Blechman, formerly President Jimmy Carter’s Assistant Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, is the co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center and Chairman Emeritus of its Board of Directors. Irving N. Blickstein is a former Assistant Deputy Chief of Naval Operations and a RAND researcher.


Clinton, Bush, Obama

I have examined the career movements of more than 100 well-known political actors in the Clinton (Bill), Bush and Obama campaigns to demonstrate the seamless movement of scholars from think tanks to government. The “revolving door” effect is a major part of the advisory function that think tanks provide to policymakers. With each successive administration, the American president replaces many of the mid-level and senior executive branch personnel. A great number of the incoming bureaucrats are drawn from the think tank community, and many of the departing officials will land at the desks of similar institutions. This “revolving door” phenomenon has helped form “governments-in-waiting” since 1961. President Barack Obama’s administration is no exception to this rule. His National Security Council has two former Senior Fellows from the Center for American Progress, Mara Rudman and Denis McDonough. This revolving door phenomenon again appears with Susan Rice, the current US Ambassador to the United Nations. Rice was previously a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy and Global Economy and Development Program of the Brookings Institution and an Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton administration before joining the Obama administration.

Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) President and former State Department Director of Policy and Planning, Richard Haass writes that the “revolving door” is a source of strength in American foreign policy formulation. He believes that think tanks are a forum in which government officials can remain involved in ongoing foreign policy debates, and to staff an informal establishment, which provides advice and commentary on world affairs.[11] In addition, the revolving door offers think tank scholars with insight on how to reach policymakers, and provides a reliable source of independent information free from political taint to those in power (further examples of this phenomenon are found in Appendix B). Paralleling Haass’ assertion that the revolving door provides independent and reliable scholarship, Lee M. Katz argues in his “American Think Tanks: Their Influence is on the Rise that the CAP played a crucial role in President Obama’s transition and is now a source of personnel for his administration.[12] The Bush administration, too, appointed a number of think tank recruits. Think tanks provide a government in waiting or shadow government where policy experts reflect on past policies, critique and comment on current polices and prepare to return to a future administration. This revolving door trend, Haass acknowledges, is one unique to the American political system; in other developed democracies such as England, France and Japan, a new government finds continuity of available personnel in the professional civil service.[13] Indeed, in the words of P.J. Crowley, a CAP fellow, think tanks are the closest thing that the USA has to a shadow government; in the English political system, for example, there exists a formalized government in waiting for a political party that is out of power.[14]

The revolving door between government and think tanks underscores the significance of these institutions in supplying Washington with critical thinkers and policy creators. Unlike other civil society entities such as corporations or non-profits, think tank scholars flow in and out of government with fluidity. As administrations transition, think tanks act as an incubator for scholars previously in government, offering an opportunity to investigate, inform, and produce unique insights. Conversely, with new administrations, leaders select the brightest minds from policy institutions, seeking their expert opinions and discerning ideas. This inextricable link between research institutions and government through personnel overlap reaffirms the position of think tanks as a fifth estate, separate from other civil society actors.


[1] “Richard N. Haass,” Council on Foreign Relations, http://www.cfr.org/bios/3350/richard_haass.html (Accessed 4 January 2008); “Mike Huckabee on Late Edition: 12/16/2007,” YouTube, 16 December 2007, http://youtube.com/watch?v=YEEDs35vEYw (Accessed 4 January 2008).

[2] Deborah Solomon, “Questions for David Frum: Right Hand Man,” New York Times Magazine, 6 January 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/06/magazine/06wwln-Q4-t.html?ex=1357275600&en=790838f3acd552d2&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss (Accessed 13 January 2008).

[3] “The War Over the Wonks,” Washingtonpost.com.

[4] “The War Over the Wonks,” Washingtonpost.com, 2 October 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/opinions/documents/the-war-over-the-wonks.html (Accessed 5 January 2008).

[5] “Charles Horner,” Hudson Institute, http://www.hudson.org/learn/index.cfm?fuseaction=staff_bio&eid=CharHorner (Accessed 4 January 2008); James McGann, “Think Tanks and Foreign Policy,” 2 January 2008 (Accessed 4 January 2008).

[6] Barack Obama, “Strengthening Our Common Security By Investing in Our Common Humanity” http://www.cgdev.org/doc/blog/obama_strengthen_security.pdf (Accessed 28 September 2012).

[7] “The War Over the Wonks,” Washingtonpost.com.

[8] Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Security and Opportunity for the Twenty-first Century,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2007.

[9] Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Security and Opportunity for the Twenty-first Century”.

[10] Email from CGDEV, 23 February 2009.

[11] Haass, “Think Tanks and U.S. Foreign Policy: A Policy-Maker’s Perspective,” 7.

[12] Katz, “American think tanks,” 2.

[13] Haass, “Think tanks and U.S. foreign policy,” 7.

[14] Katz, “American think tanks,” 3.