Aspen Ideas Festival: Big Thinkers and Policy Wonks

Gee. This is kind of embarrassing. I’ve been in Colorado for two weeks and I’ve been excluded from one of the big events: the Aspen Ideas Festival. Lloyd Grove, writing on The Daily Beast, describes the festival as “a week-long conclave of well-heeled do-gooders and big thinkers.”

Hey. I’m a go-gooder and big thinker. But I guess I’m not on the A-list (or apparently any list, other than possibly a shit-list). I guess there aren’t many invitations for pajama-clad citizen journalists. Sigh.

Anyway, I’ve been associated with a number of organizations Inside the Beltway for nearly 40 years. And I’ve always been somewhat amused at the premium that is placed on attending or speaking at seminars, meetings, policy briefings, conferences and so on. Maybe this is the business of the Beltway elites, advocates and policy wonks and helps explain why for this group at least D.C. is recession-proof.

It appears that the Aspen Ideas Festival is one of the big fish in the conference skillet. Here’s from Politico, “Aspen Festival: D.C.’s summer camp“:

For Washington’s A-list, it doesn’t get any better than this: seven summer days talking policy in the cushy and comely mountain town of Aspen, Colo.

And it’s not just the standard Washington policy discussions that dominate Beltway think tank symposiums: The Aspen Ideas Festival prides itself on digging deep into the issues — even the quirky ones.

While there is the standard fare of D.C. talkfests — “Making Democracy Work” with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer or “America — the Great Debate” with White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee — there are plenty of slightly off-kilter ones as well. Panel discussions at this year’s festival include “Hip Hop Deconstructed” and “Reality TV and Pop Culture.” One program even explores the idea and implications of “happiness.” And on one evening, you can catch such notables as Sandra Day O’Connor, John Negroponte and Zeke Emanuel dressed up in 16th-century garb for the evening performance, “All’s Well With Will: Shakespeare and Happiness.”

Think of it as summer camp for adults. And the sessions not only dominate the day but bleed into the night with events at the Belly Up music venue or the Hotel Jerome.

“By 11 p.m., the bar area at the Aspen Institute is just filled with everybody,” said institute CEO and President Walter Isaacson, whose organization sponsors the event along with its co-sponsor The Atlantic.

For Washington’s speaker circuit set, it’s one of the plushest gigs around — if you can get it.

OK. Sounds like fun stuff. And as long as nobody tries to act on any of the “big ideas” then it’s a case of “no blood, no foul.”

But apparently this year the Obama administration is using the festival as a way to strengthen some frayed relationships with former liberal supporters. Here’s from Grove’s Daily Beast article “Obama Woos Liberal Elite“:

If David Axelrod thought he was going to be love-bombed at the Aspen Ideas Festival—the week-long conclave of well-heeled do-gooders and big thinkers who, stylistically at least, would be expected to wish President Obama the very best—he had another think coming.

“This is a moderate crowd, both Republicans and Dems—you’re not looking at Tea Party Nation,” Time magazine columnist Joe Klein told Obama’s political guru on Tuesday evening during an onstage interview in the fashionable Colorado resort town. “And there’s a sense of disappointment here. They know he’s smart and trying hard. They wonder why he hasn’t been more forceful—why he hasn’t cut through.”

And more:

Klein, who was grilling his old friend Axelrod under the auspices of the festival’s organizers, the Aspen Institute think tank and the Atlantic Monthly magazine, was just being polite. In fact, some folks at the festival, who voted for Obama in the last election, aren’t just disappointed, they’re angry at him this time around, with the economy struggling, unemployment topping 9 percent and the president’s job approval ratings sliding week after week.

“I’m so mad, I want to kick his butt,” said nominal supporter Cynthia Brill, who was attending the panel discussions and earnest disquisitions  with her husband Steve, the journalist and high-tech entrepreneur. “They think everything is just fine—they don’t seem to know what’s going on.”

Outside of Axelrod’s hearing, Brill, a lawyer, told me that even before the outcome of the debt-limit negotiations is known, Obama has given up far too much in his back and forth with congressional Republicans over increasing the U.S. government’s ability to borrow money and prevent a market-shaking credit default. “He’s already lost the battle,” she claimed.

Cynthia, chill. You’re at summer camp.

And we’ll see who the winners and losers are when the people throughout the country who aren’t on the A-list start lining up at the voting booths.

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