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Opinion: Columnists

Meet the Left's Grover Norquist

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Opinion,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Campaign 2012

Robert Borosage leaned back in his chair as he spoke to me at his K Street office. He grinned as he recalled the recent "fiscal cliff" debate in Congress, and the box in which conservatives -- especially anti-tax activist Grover Norquist -- found themselves as it played out.

"It was actually a great delight watching Grover explain how the greatest tax increase in 20 years was a tax cut," Borosage chuckled. "It was a magical moment in television." He compared it to his own effort to keep entitlement reforms out of the deal.

"We outlasted him," he said of Norquist.

If anyone in D.C. serves as a left-wing version of Norquist, it is Bob Borosage. He's a ubiquitous figure behind the scenes of the progressive movement. His work is key to understanding the Left's renewed embrace of old-fashioned class warfare rhetoric -- and the abandonment of Bill Clinton's more moderate politics.

He doesn't shy away from the phrase "class warfare" either. "For years, conservatives in both parties have warned against class warfare. Americans, we're told, don't like that divisiveness," he wrote in the Huffington Post recently. "Nonsense."

He's also one of the key figures in the Left's newfound ability to present a united front and set aside its historical internecine squabbles. Anyone who wants to know how, for example, Big Labor came to embrace environmentalism needs to understand his work.

A life-long liberal activist now in his 60s, Borosage was political director for Jesse Jackson Sr., during his 1988 presidential bid. Jackson did better at the time than anyone expected. He also convinced Borosage that seemingly antagonistic groups could be woven into an effective coalition.

He recalled a tense meeting between Jackson and a group of white Teamsters in Georgia. Billy Carter, the former president's famously redneck brother, introduced Jackson, who then began telling the stone-faced union men they needed to ally themselves with African-Americans, the anti-war crowd and even gays to boost their political clout.

"We were sitting there thinking, 'Oh, geez, reverend, you didn't have to say gays, did you?' This was 1988," Borosage reminisced. "But in the end, he had them singing, 'We Shall Overcome.' It was an amazing performance."

He thinks Jackson should have run again in 1992, and might have gone much further. Borosage scorns the Clinton administration and his "third way" triangulation politics. "I think of it as a wasted time," he said.

Borosage spent those years working on the Senate campaigns of the late Paul Wellstone, Barbara Boxer and Carol Moseley Braun before deciding to cast his net even wider.

Today, Borosage's main job is as co-director of the Institute for America's Future, a 501(c)3 nonprofit group, and its 501(c)4 counterpart, the Campaign for America's Future. The groups are dedicated to formulating the Left's message and building ties among left-wing groups.

CAF and IAF's boards of directors read like who's who of the Left: Former AFL-CIO President John Sweeney; Nation editor-in-chief Katrina vanden Heuvel; Actor Warren Beatty; Moveon.org board president Eli Pariser; and NAACP senior vice president Hilary Shelton, among others.

He boasts of close relationship with top Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Dick Durbin.

"I'd say we are the bridge," Borosage said. "We are attuned to the grassroots and in touch with the progressive leadership in Congress."

CAF hosts the largest annual conference of liberal groups in the U.S. -- the mirror image of the right's annual Conservative Political Action Conference (aka CPAC) events.

For many years it was called the "Take Back America Conference." Last year, that was amended to the "Take Back the American Dream Conference" as it incorporated Rebuild the Dream, an organization founded by Van Jones.

But running CAF and IAF is just one of the many hats Borosage wears. He is also founder and chairman of Progressive Majority, a PAC that recruits left-wing candidates at the state and local level. "We thought we had better build a pipeline" to create farm teams for House and Senate races, he explained.

Borosage was instrumental in founding the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of Big Labor and environmentalists to push for renewable energy projects. It became the blueprint for President Obama's multibillion green energy push (which has spent massively with negligible results).

Looking back at 2012, Borosage is pleased that the White House was pushed into embracing economic populism, noting that President Obama is "not instinctively populist." He hopes to get the White House to continue taking on "gilded age inequality."

"We're going to be pushing the boundaries of debate," he said.

Unspoken is that the boundaries have already moved a long way in his direction.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

Watch Institute for America's Future founder Robert Borosage on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.

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Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner