Karl Rove, the “architect” of George W. Bush’s political campaigns. Ralph Reed, the man who built the Christian Coalition. Grover Norquist, a GOP strategist who never met a tax he didn’t hate.
These conservative icons were all trained at the right-wing Leadership Institute, which was founded in 1979 by former Goldwater acolyte Morton Blackwell and has become the right’s premier training center.
Some 48,000 students have walked through the doors at the institute’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters to attend courses with titles like “Broadcast Journalism School,” “Campus Election Workshop,” “Capitol Hill Writing School,” and “Effective TV Techniques.” Alumni hold thousands of positions across the media landscape, in political organizing, and in public service-including hundreds of state and federal legislative seats and two Miss America crowns.
Through the generous support of individual donors and wealthy family foundations, the nonprofit organization’s services are all but free. (Tuition for the seven-day Campaign Leadership School is just $250, and financial aid is available to bring that cost even lower.) The training center, housed in a five-story building that contains six high-tech classrooms capable of holding 135 students, state-of-the-art television studios, and chaperoned dormitories where up to 44 people can stay free of charge while they’re attending courses.
Antha Williams, a longtime progressive organizer who has also designed training for like-minded activists, attended the Campaign School in July 2005, expecting to learn just how far the left was lagging behind the right. To her surprise, she discovered that the nuts-and-bolts agenda wasn’t much different from what you would find at a place like Green Corps: Presenters talked clinically about building a grassroots organization, fund-raising, media and communications, opposition research, and writing voter mail.
According to Williams, the biggest difference, besides the sheer volume of students and impressive array of resources, was the institute’s disciplined way of describing issues in clear, ideologically loaded terms-an approach the media has come to call “framing.” Presentations are liberally salted with conservative code words like freedom, liberty, and family values. “Where we might talk about boosting voter turnout, they talk about preventing voter fraud,” she says. Where progressives might call for “tax equity” or “investments in our children’s future,” conservatives counter with talk of “tax relief” and “rooting out government waste.”
Since framing has become a frequent talking point among progressives on the frontlines, and there is less sheepishness today about playing practical issues for political advantage, Williams returned from her reconnaissance mission hopeful that activists on the left are well positioned to match the right’s strategic sophistication. The institute’s sheer capacity, financially and in terms of class size, remain a concern, however. And competing on that front promises to remain a struggle.
“We do have more people [than the right] to draw from as raw material on college campuses,” says David Halperin. But the Leadership Institute has a $9.4 million budget, and its Campus Leadership Program is expanding rapidly. Between September 2004 and May 2006 the number of conservative student groups it helped start grew from 216 to 731. This fall Blackwell will dispatch 60 field staff members across the country and expects to push that total to 1,000 groups by the end of the year. By contrast, Green Corps and Campus Progress each have fewer than 20 staffers and budgets of about $1.5 million.
Over the past 30 years, one of the major reasons for this financial imbalance has been the right’s willingness (and the left’s unwillingness) to dive headlong into partisan politics. (It helps as well that big business is on their side.) At the Campaign School, for instance, the main focus is on getting Republicans elected. That’s why “all of the trainers,” according to Williams, “are Republican political consultants. All of the case studies are from Republican campaigns.” And most of the students are Republican candidates or campaign staffers, she says.
Always nice seeing LI get singled out.
As a former Field Rep. for LI, it warms my heart to see the left go ga-ga over them.