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Can Patrick Gaspard Revive the Center for American Progress?

In September, as images of Border Patrol agents on horseback roping Haitian migrants blanketed cable news, Patrick Gaspard reacted quickly. Gaspard, the recently installed president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, the Democratic Party’s mainstay think tank, would fly down to Texas to protest the new Democratic administration’s border policies. “I’m in route this morning to the Texas border in active solidarity with Haitians who have been hunted and whipped like animals,” Gaspard tweeted. For a think tank best known for haranguing Republicans and defending Democrats, it was a noticeable public break with Joe Biden—and an unusual tone from Gaspard.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) was conceived in the early 2000s as the liberal alternative to established conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation. Its founder, ex–Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, pitched it as a “think tank on steroids.” Over the following two decades, CAP served as the administration-in-waiting during the George W. Bush years, and then became the go-to wonk shop for Barack Obama’s presidency. Between Podesta and Neera Tanden, his successor as CEO, the think tank, long seen as a Hillary Clinton White House in exile, was in a prime spot to have its largest sway yet after she won in 2016.

Except the polls were wrong and … Donald Trump won. Tanden shifted CAP from operating primarily as a hub for policy papers and reoriented it around resistance to the president, setting up an anti-Trump war room through its 501(c)(4) arm. But it lost some of its shine as Democrats continually squabbled over the meaning of 2016, and the institution never quite regained its dominant status as the liberal think tank.

Gaspard replaced Tanden in June. He’d spent decades quietly moving up the ranks in elite Democratic circles. But unlike many operatives who have broken into those inner sanctums, Gaspard retains a low public profile. (In keeping with that attitude, he declined interview requests for this story.) He is not known for showing up at lavish parties. Gaspard is not a regular face cruising through studios for Sunday cable broadcasts. His friends describe him as a humble community organizer at his core.

Gaspard is not Tanden, right down to biography. Where Tanden is a pugilist who cut her teeth as a member of Hillary Clinton’s cutthroat orbit of Democratic politics, and whose controversial tweets aimed at foes right and left cost her a chance to become Office of Management and Budget director, Gaspard is of the Obama milieu right down to temperament. “I would call him a progressive pragmatist,” said Howard Dean. “I doubt very much you’re going to get a lot of bombastic statements out of CAP as a result of his running it.” But directing a think tank, especially one in need of a new direction, has less to do with temperament and more to do with vision. The question for Gaspard is: Can CAP, after almost two decades at the forefront of defining liberalism, reshape itself in an era of a divided Democratic Party?

Gaspard was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1967. His parents had fled dictatorship in Haiti and “heeded the call of Patrice Lumumba for francophone academics of African descent to settle in newly independent African states,” according to a biographical page on the Haitian Embassy’s website. But the family moved to New York when he was three. After growing up on the Upper West Side and in Queens, Gaspard stayed in New York and attended Columbia.

Gaspard worked his way through city politics—a stint on David Dinkins’s 1989 mayoral campaign; chief of staff of the New York City Council—and entered the city’s activist circles, moving in the same political trenches that Bill de Blasio did. “They cut their teeth during the Crown Heights Riots, where they were both young City Hall staffers,” said Bill Hyers, who ran de Blasio’s mayoral campaign. (The New York Times listed Gaspard as one of three people in de Blasio’s “inner ring” as an outside adviser in 2013—alongside the mayor’s wife.) He gained prominence through organized labor, spending nine years at the powerful SEIU 1199.

Gaspard’s first major foray into national politics found him on the leftier side, working for Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. “He was someone that really understood organization,” Dean said. Four years later, Gaspard stayed at SEIU for the primaries, but backed Obama and joined his team for the general election. Afterward, Gaspard became an assistant to the president and ran the White House Office of Political Affairs. His portfolio was pure politics. That meant early preparations for Obama’s reelection, a sort of domestic diplomat within the Democratic Party. When the president goes on a trip to, say, eastern Ohio, the political director needs to make sure he meets with local party officials with sway.

After Gaspard spent a stint as executive director of the Democratic National Committee, Obama nominated him as ambassador to South Africa. This wasn’t one of those cushy posts rewarding political allies in countries where there isn’t a lot at stake. Gaspard had to deal with South African President Jacob Zuma during a period of institutional patronage, corruption scandals, Nelson Mandela’s death, and military and civil unrest in Zimbabwe.

After Trump won, Gaspard became president of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. Atop one of the most well-funded liberal donor groups, Gaspard first pushed for greater investment in voting rights. Then, in July 2020, OSF announced a plan to contribute $220 million to racial justice groups. “The demands being made now will not be met overnight, and we know the gaze of media and elected officials will turn in other directions,” he told The New York Times. “But we need these moments to be sustained. If we’re going to say ‘Black lives matter,’ we need to say ‘Black organizations and structures matter.’”

At no point did Gaspard opt for a lucrative job in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street as did many of his fellow Obama alums. It’s just not his style. “He viewed politics as a means of promoting social and economic justice,” said David Axelrod. “He is a hard-bitten idealist.” But when Biden was named president-elect, Gaspard resigned from OSF, and reportedly tried calling in some chits from union friends to become labor secretary. He didn’t get the job, and instead found himself back as the outside organizer.

Multiple Democrats who know Gaspard suggested to me that he’s assessing the landscape at CAP before implementing any major changes. Still, Gaspard’s hiring suggests the new direction is to avoid being tied to just one of the core standard-bearers of the Democratic Party, as it once was so thoroughly with the Clintons. CAP is still finding its place amid an increasingly fractured Democratic coalition. During an October MSNBC appearance, Gaspard spent his airtime awkwardly trying to convince Andrea Mitchell that Senators Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin agree more than they disagree. But at times, CAP has publicly rebuked Biden. “All Americans should be appalled by the conditions facing migrants at the U.S. southern border,” Gaspard said in a September statement.

With Republicans expected to pick up congressional seats in the midterms, a postelection circular firing squad within the Democratic Party is a near certainty. CAP could end up having to represent just one side, contra Gaspard’s apparent goal of creating an all-inclusive Democratic think tank.

CAP was conceived at a time when there was a dearth of influential liberal think tank and activist institutions in Washington. “When I founded CAP,” Podesta said in a virtual event introducing Gaspard in October, “the notion of what it meant to be a progressive, and whether progressives could win national elections and wield power for the public good was very much in question.“ That question has been answered over the past 18 years, but in the process the terrain shifted, with a new resurgent left in the House’s Progressive Caucus that no longer automatically looks to CAP for policy notes—especially after Tanden’s term defending Hillary Clinton and bashing Bernie Sanders.

But that could change. “We need to work with allies and like-minded partners across the country and come together in pursuit of our common goals,” Podesta said at that intro event. ”That’s something Patrick’s been doing throughout his career.” The virtual welcome showed a bit of that ideological breadth, with Representative Hakeem Jeffries interviewing Gaspard, and Julián Castro offering closing remarks. In his early days, Gaspard has supported Biden’s policy agenda broadly but not shied away from criticism, as when he went to the border. As other progressive groups—both socialist and centrist—have blossomed in recent years, and in an era where the Democratic president entered office without particularly close ties to the think tank, Gaspard will have to keep carefully treading that line to fulfill his goal of CAP representing the entire breadth of the Democratic Party.

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