A high-powered D.C. think tank is, among other things, an administration-in-waiting. There’s a reason people like Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton get parked at AEI between Republican administrations. Plenty of high-ranking Democrats have found perches at Brookings or other liberal policy shops while waiting their next turn, too. Think tanks serve not only as boarding houses for top officials, but even more importantly as incubators for future mid-tier and entry-level staffers, while the white papers these institutions produce can become the basis for legislation once their team returns to power. Even the more broadly educational undertakings — speakers and books with less direct policy applications — help lay down narratives and communications angles for future policy battles.

There’s not much question of AEI or its left-wing counterparts “influencing Washington” in any very effective way while ideologues of the opposite faction have power. A bit of tinkering in Congress, given favorably conditions there, maybe. But a think tank that’s out of sync with the White House is a very different creature from one that has a sympathizer there. Note that AEI has adjusted its tone in a few ways since the end of the Bush administration — not, of course, rethinking its catastrophic foreign-policy recommendations, but downplaying foreign policy in general and positioning itself in line with the small-government rhetoric of the Tea Party. (And why not? The Tea Party’s limited-government focus is mostly rhetorical, too.)

This puts Cato, or any possible libertarian think tank on the model of AEI and Heritage, in a difficult position. There are conservative think tanks that synchronize with Republican administrations and liberal think tanks that do the same with Democratic ones, but what kind of administration would tap a libertarian institute for its brain power? Answer: a libertarian administration, if ever a Ron Paul-like figure becomes president.

The greatest weakness the Ron Paul movement has at the moment is its lack of policy muscle. Paul’s congressional office has a small but brilliant staff, and the nonpartisan Campaign for Liberty has the very capable Matthew Hawes. Certainly the Paul universe has an abundance of libertarian theorists and Austrian economists in academia, all of which is necessary for the kind of movement Paul is building. What his movement does not have in abundance, however, are people who can translate theory into policy.

Cato has people who can do that, at least in the abstract. There’s a long and acrimonious history between some of the Cato old guard and associates of the late Murray Rothbard, who was a Cato co-founder stripped of his shares in 1981 by Ed Crane and Charles Koch, the two figures now struggling for control of institute. Cato even now is not nearly as Austrian as the Ron Paul movement would like. But on a wide range of issues, particularly federalism, civil liberties, and foreign policy, Cato supplies the closest thing to a policy skeleton that any libertarian officeholder could ask for.

I’m using specifics for the sake of illustration: in the abstract, any big libertarian think tank and any nationally successful libertarian politician or group of politicians could interlock in this fashion. Nothing comparable to the relationship between AEI and the Bush GOP exists, nor should exist, among libertarians. But from the point of view of how policy is made, think tanks and administrations do indeed contribute to one another. What’s more — and this doesn’t just go for libertarians but for traditionalist conservatives as well — the institutional infrastructure has to precede political power. Otherwise the policy vacuum in a new administration will be filled by whatever ideas and personnel are available, including a.) campaign types and movement people, who are easily outmaneuvered and co-opted by the Washington pros (think of the post-Goldwater conservative movement, the Christian Coalition, and the Tea Party), and b.) those old Washington pros themselves, especially ex-staffers of previous administrations. This is how the Washington establishment perpetuates itself.

It’s true enough that a libertarian think tank has limited effectiveness as long as there are few libertarian officeholders and no sympathizer in the White House — but there are two ways to resolve this problem. One would be by creating more libertarian officeholders, which is not something that a nonpartisan think tank can directly help to do; all it can do is bide its time. The other, quicker fix is to make the libertarian think tank less libertarian and more conventionally Republican, so it gains access to the corridors of power as soon as the GOP rides back. To all indications, this is what the Kochs have in mind for Cato. Koch appointments to the Cato board suggest as much, as does the general tilt of Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ 501(c)(4) advocacy group.

That might seem like a practical approach for a group like Cato, but it’s an approach that almost certainly precludes taking a hard line against conventional GOP positions on foreign policy and civil liberties. It would also put Cato into competition with AEI and Heritage for Republican favor, a contest that would encourage sanding down libertarianism’s rough edges. (Charles Koch could simply buy his way into AEI or Heritage, but he demands a high degree of responsiveness from his employees; sharing power with management is not his style — see this footnote.)

As Alex Pareene notes at Salon:

Cato is mostly antiwar, decidedly anti-drug war, and sponsors a lot of good work on civil liberties. That … is basically what the Kochs don’t like about them, because white papers on decriminalization don’t help Republicans get elected. As Jonah Goldberg complains in a post that otherwise resolutely refuses to come to a conclusion or have a point, Cato has an annoying habit of not always seeing itself as a natural member of the glorious Republican coalition. (Current Cato headline: “It’s Not Obama’s Fault That Crude Oil Prices Have Increased.” Oh, man, don’t tell Americans for Prosperity that!)

The last thing the world needs is another conventionally Republican think tank. It needs a libertarian one, both for the sake of the issues where libertarians are most correct and for the overall intellectual biodiversity of the nation. The country could use a conservative, as opposed to merely Republican, think tank as well. Sincere politicians and grassroots activists are not enough; to think that they are is to fall prey to the myth and mystique of democracy.