WASHINGTON -- So the Republicans have just lost the White House. What are they going to do now?
Answer: Set up a think tank.
All over Washington, think tanks are sprouting up these days as Republicans ponder what went wrong and try to find their way back to presidential power. For a change, they may be looking for inspiration to the Democrats, whose own Progressive Policy Institute has been touted as the force that turned the party around and provided the substance for Bill Clinton's message.
Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas is organizing the Better America Foundation, which will criticize the Clinton administration's policies, develop Republican alternatives and raise Mr. Dole's visibility for a possible 1996 presidential run.
Not to be outdone, another potential 1996 GOP contender, Jack F. Kemp, is creating a think tank.
Called Empower America, it will serve as an advocacy group, as well, emphasizing free-market policies, military strength and Mr. Kemp's belief in "entrepreneurial capitalism" as a way of out of America's urban problems. Joining the former housing secretary are Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, ambassador to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan, and former education secretary and drug czar William J. Bennett.
While Mr. Dole and Mr. Kemp further their presidential ambitions, Judith F. Taggart, a former journalist, and several other Republicans are setting up the Institute for Republican Women in an effort to broaden the influence of women in the party.
"The Republicans should have taken the lead on women's issues but they missed the boat," said Mrs. Taggart, a longtime Republican volunteer. "Republican women have a lot to contribute in terms of the thought process, and this should help them do that."
Think tanks aren't limited to Washington. Only about 10 percent of them are located here with many prominent ones, like the RAND Corp., elsewhere.
Besides disseminating ideas and shaping policies, think tanks also serve as shelter from the political storm. Two refugees from the Bush administration, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Michael J. Boskin, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, are joining the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
One question both men will soon face is whether any of the reports and papers and books that the think tanks churn out get read and have any effect. Do they just migrate to the bottom of the Washington wastebasket without ever being looked at?
No, said Kent Weaver, an expert on think tanks, who himself works for one, the Brookings Institution. "Ideas count," he said. .. "If you don't believe that ideas are important then what's the point of it all?"
The Progressive Policy Institute is proving Mr. Weaver right. PPI was established in 1989 as the research arm of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate Democrats trying to move the party away from its New Deal, traditionally liberal mind-set.
Bill Clinton headed the DLC in 1990 and 1991 and was involved in setting up PPI. Several people associated with the institute have joined the administration or worked on the transition, and its president, Will Marshall, delivered a copy of the institute's election-year blueprint, "Mandate for Change," to Mr. Clinton in Little Rock, Ark.
"I don't want to blow my own horn," Mr. Marshall said, "but there is no question that in three years, PPI has had an extraordinary effect on the national debate."
Even though he is a Democrat, Mr. Marshall credits the Heritage Foundation with showing the way for the new think tanks. It was the "operational model," he said, noting the way it aggressively marketed its viewpoints and aimed its message at the White House, Congress and the public, rather than just academics.
Twenty years ago, Heritage was tucked away on the second floor of a Washington print shop with its staff of five forced to dodge heavy machines and use the back stairs. Then, in 1981, it shook up Washington by helping to lay out the blueprint for the first Reagan term.
Today, it owns its own headquarters, an eight-story building on Capitol Hill that has attracted high-profile political types like Mr. Kemp, Mr. Bennett and Edwin Meese, Mr. Reagan's attorney general.
David Mason, the director of the Heritage Congress Project, credits its success to "keeping our focus and avoiding the temptation to do other things." Early on, the group was asked by the Rotary Club of Toledo, Ohio, to prepare material for civics textbooks in Toledo schools.
"That's an interesting idea but not what we were supposed to be doing," he said. "We try to identify who the policy makers are and give them a sense of where do we go from here," not a long discussion of a problem's origins.
That's why his group created what it calls "the briefcase rule."
"If it isn't something a congressman or a staffer could put in his briefcase and read at home or on a plane," he said, then the group doesn't publish it. Heritage puts out about one publication a day, so many are short, 10- to 20-page papers on current issues such as health care, taxes, congressional reform and international trade.
"The ideas have to be good," Mr. Mason said. "You can't sell the sizzle without the steak."