Norm Coleman’s Calculated and Cunning Comeback

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision allowing an unlimited flow of corporate money into electoral politics, the former Minnesota Senator has launched two new ‘center-right’ political organizations focused on traditional conservative principles’ and dedicated to battling liberal think tanks.


When the long drawn out fight for the Senate seat from Minnesota between Democrat Al Franken and Republican incumbent Norm Coleman was finally decided – many, many months after Election Day – no one really expected the vanquished Coleman to ride off into the sunset.

And Coleman didn’t. These days Coleman is hoping to carve out some new political territory for conservatives that is just far enough away from the racousity of the Tea Party movement not to alienate them, and is a healthy distance from the Religious Right and their social agenda.

Last month, after having done everything in his power to delay the seating of Franken, and after being out of the spotlight for a few months, Norm Coleman, along with businessman Fred Malek, McCain presidential campaign advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and Rob Collins, a former staffer for Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), announced the launching of two non-profit enterprises, the American Action Forum (501(C)(3)and the American Action Network (501 (C)(4)). Coleman, who will serve as chairman of both groups, claims that they are being established as an ideological counterbalance to the Center for American Progress, an important liberal think tank.

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “The ‘Forum’ will be a think tank focused on policy work and the ‘Network’ will be geared toward spreading that message through forums, education, advertising, etc (not to mention some possible lobbying). Coleman is the CEO of both organizations. We will support center-right principles. Our focus is going to be about principles. We will support policymakers that espouse those principles," Coleman said. Coleman eschewed the possibility that he would also engage in lobbying saying that was not his “purpose.”

According to The Minnesota Independent’s Andy Birkey, “The American Action Network hopes to take advantage of the recent Supreme Court ruling overturning rules about political giving by corporations, Coleman told the New York Times.”

In early February, the New York Times reported that “Republicans who are donors, board members or both include Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi; Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida; Ed Gillespie, like Mr. Barbour a former chairman of the Republican Party; … Robert K. Steel, a former executive of Wachovia and Goldman Sachs who was a Treasury official in the second Bush administration; and Kenneth G. Langone, a founder of Home Depot and a former director of the New York Stock Exchange” 

Coleman joins a long list of defeated -- and often even disgraced – conservative politicians that won’t just bid the public a fond adieu and drift off into obscurity. These politicians frequently wind up with high-powered lobbying firms or at conservative think tanks and policy centers.

Take Louisiana’s former Republican House member Bob Livingston for example. In 1999, Livingston who had been forced to resign as Speaker-elect (he was appointed after the resignation of Newt Gingrich) from the House due to impending revelations of marital infidelity, formed an entity called The Livingston Group. More than ten years later, The Livingston Group is doing quite well for itself: Last year, The Livingston Group received more than $7.5 million in lobbying fees from corporate clients, which includes  Accenture, Anglo-American PLC, and Goodyear, and such organizations as Boys Town, Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.  and The Navajo Nation, according to, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Newt Gingrich, who preceded Livingston to forced retirement fro9m the House over a series of ethical lapses, has been in and around conservative think tanks for the better part of two decades. He was a fellow at both the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Hoover Institution, two of the most important neoconservative think tanks. Gingrich also specializes in the formation of his own institutions which includes the Gingrich Group, a communications and consulting firm that specializes in "transformational change," with offices in Atlanta and Washington, DC., and his American Solutions for Winning the Future, a mega-successful fund-raising enterprise, which is trying to insinuate itself into the good graces of the Tea Party movement.

During 2008, Gingrich’s American Solutions received more than 16 million dollars which included big-time donations from Carl H. Lindner and Sheldon Adelson. Adelson, the chairman and chief executive of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and who at the time had an estimated net worth in excess of 26.5 billion dollars, gave more than 5 million dollars. While Gingrich was running around the country shouting, "Drill Here. Drill Now. Pay Less," his coffers were growing by leaps and bounds.

Even those with considerable less entrepreneurial competence as Livingston and Gingrich, or as media-friendly as Gingrich, manage to wind up on their feet. Take former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. In 2006, after being overwhelmingly defeated by the Democratic Party’s Bob Casey Jr. in the Senate election (59% to 41%), Santorum joined the law firm Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, LLC, and also became a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he directs the Center’s Program to Protect America's Freedom.

Kenneth Blackwell, the former Ohio Secretary of State who was handily defeated in his run for governor by Democrat Rep. Ted Strickland, is now a Senior Fellow for Family Empowerment at Washington's premiere right-wing religious lobbying outfit, Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council.

Which brings us back to the American Action Forum and the American Action Network: To be successful, these entities need a vision, twenty-first century communications expertise, and the financial wherewithal to be able to distinguish itself from the hordes of conservative think tanks and policy centers that currently exist.

The Forum, which will formulate conservative ideas, is headed by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Director of the Congressional Budget Office and McCain’s chief  economic advisor during the presidential campaign, recognized the need for an organization that would better compete for the American people’s ear: "I came to understand that liberals had done a much better job of communicating in that political environment and through modern technologies to communicate broadly with all the demography in the United States,” he said. "Time and time again we were behind on getting our message out."

Rob Collins, a former staffer for Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), is president of the American Action Network. Collins will serve as the interface between the new media and social networking and young people: "I was drawn to the project because it allows me the opportunity to expand our center of communication to a more diverse and younger America that gets it news, education and beliefs differently than previous generations."

Collins told the FrumForum that “More Americans spend time on Facebook than they do [on traditional media]… social media has become the dominant way to communicate… finding those social interactions and hot points are where we start. The idea of building a central website and expecting that we’re going to have a million hits a day are a goal… but we have to go through search engines, ideological blogging and find the right mix for us to create a viral network.”

“The think thank arm will have fellows and conduct its own research, Coleman said, but will also be a ‘synthesizer and aggregator’ of research emerging from other conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.

“With political superstars like former … Jeb Bush, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former ambassador to the E.U. Boyden Gray and former [Florida] Senator Mel Martinez on their board, this new project will wield considerable political clout especially as Washington gears up for the upcoming 2010 congressional races and 2012 presidential election,” Tim Mak pointed out on the Frum Forum blog. “Coming in the wake of Glenn Beck’s CPAC keynote, where he asserted that conservatives didn’t need to reach out to a big tent, the American Action project appears to be a breath of fresh air.

Amongst the key participants, Fred Malek, the former Nixon operative and deputy chairman of the republican National Committee, is perhaps the most intriguing, given his long and checkered political past. In 2006, columnist Colbert King profiled Malek for the Washington Post:

Malek is a wealthy Republican who can be seen around town at black-tie charity events and fundraisers, and in haunts where the rich, famous and politically powerful gather. He's close to the presidential family, he once co-owned the Texas Rangers with George W. Bush, and he reportedly will be number one among equals if the Washington Nationals are sold to his group. 

…. The [Washington] Post reported that in 1971 Malek had ordered the FBI to conduct an investigation of then-veteran CBS correspondent and Nixon critic Daniel Schorr.

It was also in 1971, The Post reported, that Malek was given a patently anti-Semitic order from a paranoid Richard Nixon to count the Jews in high-ranking posts in the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Instead of refusing, Malek set about compiling a list of 13 of 35 top BLS employees who, he believed, were Jewish. Less than two months later, two senior BLS officials who were Jewish were moved out of their jobs to less visible posts. Malek acknowledges carrying out the disgusting hunt for Jews, but he denies having anything to do with the transfers.

While it is unlikely to ever have the cache of the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute, Coleman’s efforts are aimed at filling what he calls the “center-right” void. While this may b e an attempt to create a new brand, the issues Coleman outlined during a one-minute video sounded unremarkably similar to the same old tired right-wing agenda; “limited government,” lower taxes,” fiscal responsibility,” and a “strong national defense.”

Regardless of what may come from this effort, one thing is relatively certain; Coleman’s “action tank” will keep him in the political fray right up until his next attempt at electoral politics.

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