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Can a liberal blog launched in the midst of the Bush era – a blog that once obsessed over Alberto Gonzales, Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Rove and the outing of Valerie Plame – still make its mark in the age of Obama?
In the case of Think Progress, the answer so far is yes.
Since January, the online arm of the Center for American Progress Action Fund has embraced its new role as the pin to prick the air out of Obama opposition — largely by offering up evidence that powerful Washington interests are fertilizing grassroots conservative anger.
In April, Think Progress was the first to highlight former House Majority Leader Dick Armey's dual role as a lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies at DLA Piper and as the chairman of FreedomWorks, which has helped organize grassroots attacks on health care reform.
In the media uproar that followed, Armey quit his DLA Piper job, but not before Think Progress could hit FreedomWorks again; in July, the blog posted a leaked memo from a FreedomWorks volunteer outlining strategies for how to effectively disrupt congressional town hall meetings.
“It was our belief that memo underscored exactly what was going on in those town halls — that there was an orchestrated movement across the conservative movement,” says Think Progress editor Faiz Shakir.
In the ensuing months, Think Progress's trackers and bloggers have tried to make that point with videos and posts that undercut the opponents of President Barack Obama's agenda:
• Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley telling a home state crowd that a House health care bill would let government decide “when to pull the plug on grandma" — a remark he was later forced to defend and then disavow.
• Ohio Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt telling a birther: "I agree with you, but the courts don't."
• The chief of staff for Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn telling last month's Value Voters summit that “all pornography is homosexual pornography.”
• House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) suggesting that a town hall questioner with an ailing relative might consider going to a “charitable organization" — a line that played right into the Democrats’ argument for the urgency of passing health care reform.
Recently, Think Progress successfully pushed the theme that — in their lust for Obama-bashing — Republican leaders were actually celebrating Chicago’s loss of the Olympics.
While some of the "gotchas" were there for the taking, others came about as the result of Shakir's decision over the summer to arm some of his crew with video cameras and send them out on the road.
Shakir anticipated a “gap” in what the mainstream media would cover in the conservative realm, “and that was going to produce some ripe information for us to understand what the opposition was up to.”
“If Jean Schmidt was going to speak, we wanted to make sure we got that,” Shakir says. “If [Eric] Cantor’s people wanted to cut up the video to make it sound like he said one thing when he in fact said something else, we wanted to make sure…that got noted.”
Shakir describes Think Progress's mission as helping to "educate and inform our side and, I think, the media" about the tactics of the right.
Judged by the standard of influencing the conversation, Think Progress is flourishing.
Daily Kos Founder Markos Moulitsas says Think Progress is "an invaluable information source" for the broader net roots.
Two weeks ago, Americans United for Change based a web ad on a clip Think Progress caught of Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly seeming to throw his weight behind the public option. And last week, a Think Progress post on House Minority Leader John Boehner’s PAC expenses served as the basis for another ad that accused the Ohio Republican of being too cozy with lobbyists.
"No one in town is keeping better tabs and following the money" behind conservative groups, says Jeremy Funk, the communications director for Americans United for Change. And no one, he says, is doing more than Think Progress to capture "conservative politicians entangling themselves in hypocrisy and double-speak or making embarrassing and outrageous comments.”
When a Think Progress blogger asked Armey in September about FreedomWorks's funding and its connections to the Tea Party Patriots, Armey referred to the blogger as a "juvenile delinquent."
O'Reilly has lit into the ThinkProgress bloggers as "insects" and dismissed the blog as a place where "anybody who disagrees with Barack Obama in the public eye gets smeared and slimed.”
And conservatives note that while Think Progress rails daily against what it sees as the evils of Fox News, the network is hardly wounded, routinely thumping its rivals in the ratings wars.
The Weekly Standard’s Michael Goldfarb says that Think Progress's focus on conservative pundits shows that its impact, if anything, is waning.
“They’re a shameless bunch of lying, distorting, propagandists, which I respect, and I don’t know what MSNBC would do without them,” he says. “But I think the high watermark for Think Progress is long past.”
Shakir disagrees. He says that last month, the blog attracted more than 4 million unique visitors, an increase since Inauguration – but still well shy of the 6 million-plus that checked in amidst the election last October.
Either way, it’s been a steady upward climb since launching in January 2005.
FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon says that Think Progress would be much more effective if it dedicated its focus to arguing policy as opposed to attacking conservative personalities. (The blog does have a section called "Wonk Room," which does just that - albeit with far less attention.)
He says that Armey's decision to step down from DLA Piper in August – a move Think Progress regards as a feather in its cap – did not ratify the blog’s claims against the former Congressman. Instead, Brandon says, Armey did it because “Piper was getting so attacked for things it was innocent of.”
In contradicting the larger astrotufing charges Think Progress has leveled against FreedomWorks, Brandon says that 55 percent of his organization’s $7 million budget comes from individuals. And he notes that the Center for American Progress has its own share of wealthy donors.
At the end of the day, however, Brandon says he actually appreciates the attention that Think Progress has drawn to FreedomWorks.
“In a weird way it raises our profile because the people who don’t like us don’t like us even more,” he says. “So Rachel Maddow reads the blog and Rachel Maddow goes on a jihad against us every night. That helps us.”
Shakir says that his blog is sensitive to the balance of pushing back against conservative opposition without incidentally aggrandizing it in the debate. He notes that, while combating questions about Obama's birth certificate over the summer, Think Progress did its best to avoid highlighting Orly Taitz, the not-exactly-publicty-averse California attorney who has filed numerous lawsuits claiming the president is not a natural-born U.S. citizen.
Shakir says he'd be "lying" if he claimed he "didn't think about traffic," and that the focus on right-wing media personalities helps bring readers in for more substantive conversations about, say, health care reform.
In fact, he says, Rush Limbaugh’s "I hope he fails" line on Obama early this year set the blog’s Obama-era direction in motion. Think Progress jumped on the comment, thereafter leading the left in arguing that Limbaugh had spoken those words as the de facto head of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.
Now, Think Progress’ attention has shifted to another conservative media personality -- which is why every day at 5 p.m., in the bloggers’ pod of CAP’s H Street offices, the TVs tend to come off mute in unison just as Glenn Beck's Fox News show comes on the air.
"We know what our audience wants to read," Shakir says. "And that helps guide what we put on our blog. So we have a little bit of Glenn Beck, a little bit of Bill O’Reilly, because we know that generates enthusiasm and interest from our readers.”