Greening the Left

Tycoons will pay to generate leftist ideas in voters' minds, but now they want to see results

I'm standing in an upscale Mexican-themed San Mateo fern bar, drinking red wine with three dozen or so earnest and articulate young people, wondering what the hell this scary-sounding device is that everybody seems to be talking about.

I lived through San Francisco's late-1990s dot-com boom. So I know that in this sort of setting, one doesn't profess ignorance of oft-mentioned yet utterly mysterious technological-sounding things, lest one be shunned as a rube.

I chat with a tall, blond, thin Stanford Ph.D. student who works on a Web site that links Ivy League college students into a proto-think tank. I also talk with a vibrant young man who builds special network software for political groups. And I meet Molly Moon Neitzel, a gamely chatty, chestnut-haired 27-year-old who heads up a group called Music for America, which encourages musicians to include lefty politics in their acts. I later learn that magnates from the pale-skinned cubicle farms of the South Bay seem drawn to throwing money at these people. I understand the attraction.

The thing I have a hard time grasping, however, is an explanation I keep hearing over and over. The projects these people work with are aimed at fighting the "$300 million conservative message machine," a Republican doomsday device that has turned America toward the right wing.

After numerous conversations, I determine that this "machine" isn't a mysterious high-tech device. It's the central character in a story that is supposed to explain what all these energetic young people are doing here.

"Conservatives have developed ideas, a noise machine, with conservative think tanks and organizations that support the conservative cause. Democrats don't have that kind of support," says Lisa Seitz Gruwell, who speaks with a more world-weary tone than the others but like the rest is articulate, fit-looking, and young. She's political director of Skyline Public Works, set up by Menlo Park venture capital investor Andy Rappaport and his wife, Deborah, to distribute money made by August Capital, Andy's venture capital firm. The event is sponsored by a Rappaport-financed group called the New Progressive Coalition, meant as a sort of services, financing, and volunteer clearinghouse for leftist organizations, patterned after Craigslist.

The portentously named Roosevelt Institution, for example, aims at upgrading college term papers into think-tank monographs for use by politicians as policy papers.

"When students do papers, they're think tanks, but not effective think tanks," notes Stanford Ph.D. candidate Kai Stinchcombe, who works on the group's Web site. "Have you read the article 'Rewiring the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy'?"

I have. But I don't fully understand how a San Mateo cocktail gathering is part of the 18-months-later aftermath of the political project the July 2004 New York Times Magazinearticle described.

Contributor Matt Bai profiled Andy Rappaport in a story about how left-leaning tycoons wished to create a political infrastructure parallel to and separate from the Democratic Party. This new world of independent political organizations would counter a $300 million conservative message machine, which had supposedly injected once-extreme-seeming right-wing notions into the American mainstream through think tanks such as the Cato Institute, media companies such as Fox News, and social organizations such as the Christian Coalition. The article described how Democratic Party operative Rob Stein used a slide show illustrating this theory called "The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix" to persuade top liberal financiers to cough up parts of their fortunes. By creating and funding a liberalmoney matrix, it was hoped, the tycoons would revitalize American liberalism.

In 2004, liberal tycoons actually did spend hundreds of millions of dollars on independent political organizations that were intended "to yield immense influence over the [Democratic] Party's future," just as Bai had said they would.

Three months after the article appeared, however, the project suffered a setback with the re-election of George W. Bush. The largest left-wing-conspiracy organizations from 2004, the $135 million anti-Bush canvassing group America Coming Together and the $60 million TV-spot-buying cartel the Media Fund, were suspended last year when billionaires such as George Soros stopped writing checks.

Post-game analysis in papers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post faulted these groups for being hamstrung by 2002 campaign finance laws that allowed their existence. So-called "527" groups are a type of independent nonprofit organization named after the portion of the tax code that allows them to advocate political causes. They are allowed to spend vast sums on political "issues," but they can't advocate for a candidate by name. And they are not supposed to coordinate activities with formal political parties. Liberal millionaires don't seem to have given up on this model, however.

Right now we're in the middle of Vast Left Wing Conspiracy 2.0, as liberal millionaires and activists regroup to again reinvent and reinvigorate American leftism.

Liberal tycoons, for their part, never lost faith. Soros and Rappaport last summer joined with 70 like-minded businesspeople to gather around Rob Stein's money-matrix vision. Their new group, founded by Stein with the idea of raising $200 million for organizations that will promote ideas on the left, recently hired a McKinsey & Co. business management consultancy partner from San Francisco named Judy Wade to run it.

Separately, the Rappaports route donations through the Seitz Gruwell-run Skyline Public Works, which functions as a venture-capital-style business incubator, in which groups that the political donors fund get office space, business advice, and capital. In this way the Rappaports place bets on incipient, untested organizations in the hope that eventually one of them becomes the new, new thing that nudges America leftward.

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