Now Playing: The NeoCons and their think tanking hands in the White House
Thinkers target White HouseBy Edward Lucein Washington,By Edward Luce in Washington
When two Democratic analysts at a centrist think-tank voiced positive thoughts recently about the effects "on the ground" of General David Petraeus's Iraq troop surge, they unleashed a storm in a very Washington-ian teacup.
The pair in question – Ken Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution – were accused of aiding the George W. Bush propaganda machine and, sure enough, the White House lost no time e-mailing their views far and wide.
But their real crime might have been to damage their own prospects of securing coveted postings in the next Democratic-controlled White House. Most other Democratic analysts in Washington are working assiduously in the opposite direction.
Each administration has about 3,000 political appointments in its gift.
All of the Democratic 2008 campaigns, including that of Hillary Clinton, have branded the surge a failure and want an immediate drawdown of US troops. Equally, all are calling for higher taxes on private equity groups and all now question the merits of 1990s-style free trade agreements.
There are few contradictory voices from the centrist or left-leaning think-tanks.
"If you are an ambitious Democrat at a think-tank, now is not the time to say things that will be displeasing to the campaigns," said Steve Clemons, a foreign policy analyst at the non-partisan New America Foundation.
Nor does the self-censorship necessarily have a left-leaning bias. The Democratic campaigns, including that of Barack Obama, are maintaining a studious silenceon the Israel-Palestine dispute, in spite of the Bush administration's question-able record.
"If you want a White House job in January 2009 and you have entrepreneurial views on solving the Israel-Palestine question, then the best advice is to keep your mouth shut," said Mr Clemons.
Washington's constantly expanding plethora of think-tanks occupy a unique category. Unlike universities, they include many people who lack strict scholarly credentials. But, in contrast to think-tanks in other western democracies, they are choc-a-bloc with former and future government officials.
Some describe Washington's think-tanks as holding-pens – or incubators – for future administrations. Given the widespread expectations of a Democratic victory next year, many see the liberal Center for American Progress, which is headed by John Podesta, former chief of staff to the Clinton administration, in that light.
But think-tanks can also resemble retirement homes. Many believe that the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute's best days are behind it after it was seen as a virtual proxy for the White House.
The AEI's long list of fellows include Paul Wolfowitz, the former president of the World Bank and architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq; John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations; and Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives.
But after generating so many of the ideas and people that have driven the Bush administration, the AEI – and other conservative think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute – are no longer perceived to be writing the political narrative of the future.
"If you look at all the campaigns, the most glaring contrast is that none of the Republican candidates is coming out with detailed or original policy proposals," said Norm Ornstein, a non-partisan fellow at the AEI."
As a result, perhaps unfairly because AEI continues to generate a lot of ideas, the liberal think-tanks are in the ascendant. They are now seen as the relevant ideas factories for the first time in a generation."
Nor does the AEI see eye-to-eye any longer with the Bush administration. "There is some deep disgruntlement among neo-conservatives who believe that the Bush administration has betrayed them," said Kurt Campbell, head of the Center for a New American Security, a new, centrist think-tank that was launched in June. "However, the neo-cons remain remarkably engaged and on the offensive in Washington's ongoing battle of ideas."
Meanwhile, Washington is playing its customary parlour game of guessing which figures would populate a future administration. Should Hillary Clinton become president, many see Richard Holbrooke, the former UN ambassador, or Strobe Talbott, head of Brookings and former deputy secretary of state, as the next secretary of state.
Susan Rice, who is a former Clinton administration official, now at Brookings and a senior adviser to Mr Obama, and Kurt Campbell are tipped for senior national security positions.
Gene Sperling, Mr Clinton's former economic adviser who is now at the Center for American Progress – also advising Mrs Clinton's campaign – is tipped to take a senior economic position.
As a long-running Clinton loyalist, Mr Podesta could "write his own ticket", said one Democrat.However, the fact is that a Republican could still win in 2008 – or another Democrat."
There are a lot of people assuming that 2008 is a done deal," said John Bolton at the AEI. "People are counting their chickens before they are hatched."