New conservative political group launch event to include Gov. McDonnell and Biden economist

Jon Ward Contributor
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A new conservative political action group and think tank will launch next week with an event headlined by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell but also including Jared Bernstein, a top liberal economist within the Obama White House, as well as a representative from the AFL-CIO.

The American Action Network, which is being touted as a counterpoint organization to the liberal Center for American Progress, will hold a press conference Monday at the National Press Club and then a forum on “how to create jobs” at the W Hotel on Tuesday.

McDonnell will be the keynote speaker Tuesday morning. But the event will also feature panels including Bernstein, Ron Blackwell, the AFL-CIO’s chief economist, and Stan Anderson, a senior counselor at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“I told them the truth, which is that I was interested in hearing their views, that it would be a debate that was respectful and on the issues,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was Sen. John McCain’s top economic adviser during his presidential campaign and is now taking a senior role at AAN.

Former Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, who is another of AAN’s senior organizers, and Fred Malek, a longtime businessman and veteran of Republican politics, will make opening remarks.

AAN is being modeled on CAP’s architecture, where one organization houses both a political advocacy shop and a nonprofit policy arm. Holtz-Eakin will head up the American Action Forum, which will focus on promoting conservative policy ideas.

Rob Collins, a long-time senior adviser to House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, is in charge of the political wing.

Fundraising for AAN is still ongoing, and Holtz-Eakin on Wednesday declined to provide details of their money targets or staffing goals. But Coleman met in Texas this week with some of the biggest conservative financial backers in the nation. AAN principals have also huddled recently with top conservative political operatives such as Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie.

Doubts persist even among the GOP about whether the organization will amount to anything like what is being touted. One Republican operative pointed out that there are already a multitude of conservative think tanks, and surmised that AAN will simply be another iteration of the group Freedom’s Watch, which was founded by Las Vegas magnate and Republican donor Sheldon Adelson in 2007 to counter MoveOn.org but did not last past 2008, in large part because of Adelson’s money troubles.

Holtz-Eakin, in an interview Wednesday evening, argued that the new organization is needed because the existing conservative think tanks and advocacy groups in Washington are too slow, lumbering and removed from the day to day political realities that influence policy-making.

“There are a lot of them, I’ll grant you that,” he said. “But they form a continuum from places that are like college campuses and have such a pace, to those that are legislatively oriented. We think we fill the niche of a political savvy and informed operation. Think of having a domestic policy council outside the White House but informed by the political lay of the land, trying to educate through technology, social networking and the press.”

“If you look at what it takes to educate people on policy issues that are politically relevant, you do have to move quickly, you have to frame arguments in a way that has political salience,” he said.

Holtz-Eakin also made clear that AAN will be looking to regain ground in winning over younger voters and “those who don’t appreciate that center right conservatives have many of the same objectives for lower health insurance, better education, but our approaches are different.”

Asked how he convinced Bernstein, who is in the office of Vice President Joseph R. Biden, to attend the inaugural event for an organization with a political arm that will actively work against Democrats, Holtz-Eakin pointed to his own attendance at CAP events.

“They treated me well just like we’re going to treat them well,” Holtz-Eakin said. “I would go and defend my views in front of any audience. If people want to know why you have the opinions you do, the best thing you can do is go and let them hear you out.”