In Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, foreign-policy hawks thought they had found the conservative answer to liberal philanthropist George Soros: a deep-pocketed benefactor eager to dole out generous sums to right-leaning advocacy groups and grassroots campaigns. Adelson's largesse, they believed, would underwrite the further advancement of conservative causes—particularly those regarding national security—and allow conservatives to do well-financed battle with ideological adversaries such as MoveOn.org.
Conservatives, of course, have long had a well-established network of think tanks, which have produced influential monographs such as the one that became the basis of the Bush administration's Iraq surge strategy. And well-funded organizations on the right like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have mounted successful campaigns against Democrats. Nevertheless, conservatives in Washington have felt they lacked a comprehensive network of issue-advocacy, grassroots, and campaign groups that could influence the 2008 election and rally public opinion to support their national security agenda over the long term. So last year, when Adelson helped to establish Freedom's Watch, a group that late last summer launched a $15 million media campaign in support of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq, hopes were high—both for Adelson and for Freedom's Watch. As former White House press secretary and Freedom's Watch official Ari Fleischer put it in August, "The cavalry is coming."
Almost eight months later, some Freedom's Watch watchers are wondering whether some of the cavalry got lost. Even as the group has mounted a new campaign to coincide with General David Petraeus' testimony on Iraq to Congress this week, there has been conservative grumbling about Freedom's Watch—and Adelson. And several Freedom's Watch staffers, including its first president, Bradley Blakeman, have left the group. Now Washington conservatives are worrying that Adelson may not be the white knight they had wished for.
In not-for-attribution interviews, a few conservative think tank hands and activists expressed frustration that Freedom's Watch has yet to develop a comprehensive strategy, and they gripe that it has been slow to set up a MoveOn-style infrastructure. Freedom's Watch hasn't realized its full potential, they say, in part because Adelson overly involves himself in the group's decision-making and won't heed the good advice of…well, people like them.
"He is both meddlesome and attached to his own agenda," says a conservative think tanker. "And he is not listening to people who are giving him good political and strategic advice.… Everyone I know comes away very frustrated from their experience" with Freedom's Watch. "They are late to the game and they need to recognize that," he adds. "MoveOn has had a microphone to itself for a number of years. Freedom's Watch is not entirely ineffective, but they are not well organized or maximizing their impact." (Conservatives may be too obsessed with MoveOn to realize that it's a membership-based organization and not a precise model for a top-down outfit like Freedom's Watch.)
Other conservative activists raised similar points. "You have people like Ari Fleischer on the board of Freedom's Watch saying 'the cavalry is coming,' and a lot of groups who think they have important work to do on various issues who have, of course, come to [Adelson] with proposals," says a source familiar with Freedom's Watch. "Freedom's Watch doesn't have an executive director at the moment, and I don't see what capabilities it has set up."
Conservatives seem to be experiencing Soros envy, believing—rightly or not—that a well-heeled left has out-organized them. "The fact is this [liberal] network, it goes all the way from MoveOn to trial lawyers to the Center for American Progress: The left has all this set up, a very sophisticated structure," this source says.
Freedom's Watch spokesman Ed Patru declined to comment on conservative discontent with the group or discuss its upcoming plans: "I am not going to get into a discussion based on background sources about what our strategy is."
Conservatives are apparently frustrated not only because Freedom's Watch, which both engages in policy advocacy and makes grants to like-minded outfits, has not become the right's MoveOn, but also because it has not yet turned into what they believe is an effective ATM for their projects. "To make it successful would require a very experienced and savvy manager, someone who understands the think tank and advocacy communities, the philanthropic community, and probably knows a lot about politics, policy, and communications," says the source familiar with Freedom's Watch. "Such individuals are rare."