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Think tank trouble for Koch brothers

It seems that the effort by billionaires Charles and David Koch to take control of the libertarian Cato Institute is going poorly. "We are not acting in a partisan manner, we seek no 'takeover' and this is not a hostile action," Charles Koch told Bloomberg News. When you are denying partisanship, takeover ambitions and hostile intentions in one sentence, you probably need to rethink your PR strategy.

The Koch brothers have long supported Cato, which they helped found in Washington in 1977. Recently, however, they have come to consider their creation politically unreliable. In a meeting with Robert Levy, the chairman of Cato's board of directors, they expressed their intention to remake the institute into a party organ that would aid their effort to unseat President Barack Obama. To do so, however, they need control of the board. They intend to get it by suing the widow of William Niskanen, a recently deceased board member, for control of Niskanen's shares.

Whether they can pull off this coup is for the courts to decide. But the bigger question is: Why in the world would they want to?

In 2006, I wrote on the first page of Cato's annual report that the "libertarian Cato Institute is the foremost advocate for small-government principles in American life." I am not exactly a libertarian. I'm a technocrat. I believe in the government's ability, and occasionally its responsibility, to help solve problems that the market can't or won't resolve on its own.

I find much of Cato's hard-line libertarianism naive, callous and occasionally absurd. And yet, it's among a handful of think tanks whose work I regularly read and trust.

That's because Cato is the foremost advocate for small-government principles in American life. It advocates those principles when Democrats are in power, and when Republicans are in power. When I read Cato's take on a policy question, I can trust that it is informed by more than partisan convenience. The same can't be said for other think tanks in town.

The Heritage Foundation, for instance, is a conservative think tank that professes to pursue goals similar to Cato's. In practice, however, whatever the Republican Party wants, so does Heritage.

In 1989, Heritage helped develop the idea of universal health care delivered by the private sector through an individual mandate. In the early 1990s, it helped Senate Republicans build that concept into a legislative alternative to President Bill Clinton's proposed reforms. In the early 2000s, Heritage worked with then-Governor Mitt Romney to implement the plan in Massachusetts. Then, when Obama won office and Democrats adopted Heritage's idea, Heritage promptly fell into step with the Republican Party and turned ferociously against it.

Similarly, when Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was developing his budget and needed a friendly think tank to run the numbers, he turned to the Heritage Foundation. And boy, it made those numbers sprint. Heritage's analysis showed Ryan's budget driving down the unemployment rate to 2.8 percent. When the mockery that ensued proved too much for the think tank to bear, it quietly replaced the analysis with another that didn't include unemployment predictions.

On policy, I probably agree more frequently with the Heritage Foundation than with Cato. But I can't trust Heritage. I trust Cato.

The Koch brothers' fortune is estimated at more than $60 billion, a couple of thousand times Cato's annual operating budget. The brothers have started many advocacy organizations, many of which spend their time — and the Kochs' money — trying to influence the next election. They could begin another such group, one dedicated to providing campaign-season ammunition, without noticing the expense.

What's puzzling is why the Kochs started this campaign in the first place. It's easy enough to see what they hoped to achieve: They would quietly take control of Cato and then leverage its credibility to help elect a Republican president. Unfortunately for them, the cries from inside Cato made the "quietly" part impossible. But it would have been impossible in any case: Cato's credibility is derived from its independence; it wouldn't last long separated from it.

What the Kochs have in Cato is an advocacy organization that matters in the years between elections, even when the brothers' preferred candidate doesn't win, even to people who don't share their ideology. Cato is an organization that can have more than a marginal impact on elections. It can have a significant impact on policy and governance. That's a level of influence that even the Kochs can't buy. When two of the right wing's most influential funders don't recognize that, it should cheer liberals immensely.

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Think tank trouble for Koch brothers 03/11/12 [Last modified: Sunday, March 11, 2012 3:30am]
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