Survivor: Washington, DC (Think Tank Edition)

For much of the 2000’s, left-leaning think tanks sprang up around the nation with a common mission–to dream up strategies for countering the Bush administration with progressive policy solutions, and answer the loud horde of rightwing think tanks (just as this site has so powerfully done on global warming).

There was a crying need for such relentless, sometimes repetitive, and usually overlapping efforts: The environment (and much else) was under assault from a White House that openly rejected scientific findings, ignored real experts, and generally acted in support of special over public interests.

Then Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States of America.

Ever since November 4th, the game has changed in Washington, and now features a vastly different political team and set of priorities. For instance, and as Chris Mooney wrote here last week, all the pieces seem to be lining up both across the Hill and around the nation to tackle global warming immediately, even before Obama takes office in January. 

Most important, climate change no longer appears to be perceived as an issue promoted by a single lobbying body or interest group. Instead, the new administration has shown it’s armed and ready to address it in a holistic manner, with practical plans to introduce legislation intended to cap emissions, provide economic incentives to stop polluting, and create green jobs under strong environmental leadership.

In sum, we can expect the President-elect to usher in a kind of 21st century hoplite warfare approach to combating climate change through a new generation of capable citizens called upon early to organize and act. [Note:  George W. Bush would lead the large, powerful, and ineffective Persians at Marathon in this analogy.]

But under a greener administration, how does the climate literally change for all of the aforementioned young think tanks born to rise up against a common perceived enemy?  George W. Bush was an enormously powerful rallying symbol (and fundraising source) for concerned groups. He provided common purpose as the most notorious environmental evil-doer. Now, in contrast, it’s as if Captain Hook is bowing out of Neverland, leaving us to wonder what the Lost Boys will do off script.

Expectations are high for Obama’s anticipated science advisors and while environmentalists everywhere have good reason to rejoice, private murmurs of uncertainty abound in the liberal think tank world. For example, consider the disappointment for those groups who have strategically sought to foster close ties with Rep. John Dingell’s (D-MI) office.

They must now forge new relationships with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and staff as he assumes the chairmanship of the House Energy and Environment Committee.  Waxman has long advocated environmental protection and scientific integrity, so his committees’ needs and interests will be vastly different than those of his predecessor.  Despite the California Congressman’s encouraging track record, some think tanks actually see this transition as a setback to their agenda, because of where they already placed their existing bets. The game is changing, and no one’s sure what the rules are yet.

In other words, left-leaning think tanks, non-profits, and advocacy organizations will need to work hard to defining their unique roles, or else risk becoming irrelevant and losing funding. And so we can expect to see a flurry of briefing packets, white papers, and policy recommendations to Obama’s transition team as each seeks to serve a vital role to the new administration.

All of which means that after an initial honeymoon period in which everyone fights to overturn the outgoing Bush administration’s last minute anti-environment rules, some progressive groups will necessarily fall by the wayside during the transition process. They’re going to be very unhappy–but remember, change is what the incoming President promised.

Perhaps now, nearly 150 years after Darwin published On The Origin of Species, it’s a fitting environment in which to watch a socio-political evolution that parallels what goes on all the time the natural world. Pressure will weigh heavily on each think tank player to find its new niche and remain a prominent fixture on Capitol Hill. Those with the greatest fitness, adaptability, and yes, funding, will achieve greater purpose and influence. 

A real-world edition of ‘Survivor’ is about to play out in Washington, DC, where in the end, though, Congress and the new administration will be advised by the most capable, motivated, and talented institutions serving to fight hard for the best environmental legislation.

The process may not be easy, but it’s exactly what is needed as the environmental movement grows up.  Pragmatism will replace idealism, and hopefully better policies will emerge.

But of course, in chronicling this transition, we shouldn’t assume that it’s only happening on the left.  Expect to witness the birth of many new right-wing think tanks working to start the process over again from the other side, generating new arguments, new criticisms, new strategies. So democracy goes.

And we’d better be ready.