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What I Saw at the ‘No Labels’ Launch, Part 1

December 16, 2010

Every so often The New Moderate emerges from his cave, like a hungry bear in midwinter, and sniffs around for actual news stories to witness first-hand. This past Monday my sniffing took me all the way to New York, where a fledgling  political organization called No Labels was celebrating its official launch.

About time, too. No Labels is actively promoting the idea that our political differences don’t have to make us enemies… that we can actually transcend our differences and work across the aisle in the spirit of brotherly and sisterly cooperation. Their motto is “Not Left. Not Right. Forward.”

I have to admire their idealism and high-mindedness. At The New Moderate, I’ve been inclined to attack the follies of the right and left, not only because they deserve attacking but because (let’s face it) they’re so much fun to attack. I’ve trusted that our forcefully stated centrist views would light a fire under the great silent middle of the American political spectrum and even enlighten our polarized brethren at the fringes.

So far, despite 99 dutiful and occasionally eloquent posts (this is the 100th), my influence on American politics has been comparable to a thimble of hot water poured into a cold swimming pool. I persist because I’m convinced it’s the right thing to do, and because I’m an outspoken moderate with opinions to spout.

No Labels takes a more ecumenical approach: we don’t have to abandon our political “labels” — we simply need to put them aside in the spirit of cooperation while we work together for the greater good of our country. No Labels is emphatically not a centrist organization (or, as Rush Limbaugh and some other skeptics on the right would have it, a liberal outfit masquerading as a centrist one). Open-minded liberals, conservatives and moderates can find a congenial home at No Labels. I like their nonpartisan underpinnings, and I especially liked it that they invited me to their official launch.

On the damp, chilly morning of December 13, A.D. 2010, I hiked a mostly uphill mile from my hotel to the stately campus of Columbia University in upper Manhattan, where the all-day rally was set to begin. A dozen young enthusiasts, clad in blinding orange shirts, greeted me inside the doors of Alfred J. Lerner Hall and pointed me to the registration table. I took my name tag, slung it around my neck and moved into the high-vaulted, glass-fronted reception hall.

The No Labels program promised an all-star line-up of speakers ranging from the mid-left to the mid-right, and all points between. I’d be rubbing elbows with (or at least breathing the same air as) New York’s eminently self-possessed Mayor Michael Bloomberg and neighboring Newark’s red-hot Mayor Cory Booker… media personalities Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Michael Smerconish… political blueblood Evan Bayh and newcomer Kirsten Gillibrand… two brilliant Davids (Brooks and Gergen) along with a gaggle of Congressmen and other worthies, including the founders of No Labels.

As I took my seat in the packed auditorium, I looked around at the audience for clues. Here was a reasonable cross-section of the educated American public:  plenty of women, minorities and representatives of all points on the age spectrum between high school and senility.  

I’ve learned that the audience included 1100 individuals representing all 50 states. Attendees collectively exuded an air of palpable prosperity or at least bourgeois respectability, but the room also contained a generous sprinkling of earnest geeky-hip bloggers hunched over their lightweight laptops. Few if any attendees appeared to be drawn from the ranks of rural America, the urban proletariat or even the small-town middle class. It’s possible that most of us simply dressed up for the occasion but, for better or worse, no astute observer would mistake this gathering for a Tea Party rally.

The ceremonies commenced with a soaring, soulful rendition of what was listed on the program as the National Anthem (it was actually “America the Beautiful,” with a number of inadvertent ad-libs by the songstress). We also pledged allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands.

Now a quartet of No Labels “founding leaders” appeared onstage to greet us.

Nancy Jacobson told us, “Never give up your label — just put it aside,” and urged us to work for change in Washington.

Bill Galston observed that “We’ve been brought together by a shared concern: politics that have ceased to work in America.”

John Avlon knocked “professional polarizers” along with our “rigged system of partisan primaries that favor the extremes.” Speaking of “No Labels Nation,” he added, “We have the numbers — that’s the big secret in American politics.”

Mark McKinnon lamented that “the way the system is set up rewards people for bad behavior.” He finished by exhorting us to “go out there and create a ruckus for democracy.”

I liked this fearless foursome, these well-mannered radicals who favored neither the right nor the left — just a democratic (small D) insistence on government that listens to the people.

A short film reinforced this sensible radicalism with a bold call to nonpartisan empowerment: “We can overthrow the tyranny of hyperpartisanship,” it said, “because we are in the majority.” These were fighting words, clearly in tune with my own “radical moderate” mission and spoken on behalf of the great silent middle… the vast middle that needs to be roused to action so we can rebuild American democracy as we used to know it… before the partisans and lobbyists devoured it. 

A high-wattage procession of celebrity speakers and panels now took center stage.

Columnist/pundit/wit-at-large David Brooks, who enjoys a following among both liberals and conservatives, observed that too many Americans are “living in an information cocoon,” selectively reading and listening to opinions that simply reinforce their extremist prejudices. “How can you love your country when you hate the other half of it?,” he asked.

Syndicated radio personality and born-again moderate Michael Smerconish told us that “any move away from hyperpartisanship and toward civility has to begin with the media.” He lamented the fact that the polarized approach, full of invective and devoid of nuance, is “rewarded” in the media.

Outgoing Republican Congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina called for a conciliatory patriotism. “We don’t ask soldiers if they’re Republicans or Democrats,” he said.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa noted that the ultimate goal of bipartisanship is to get things done. He observed that party members have to “overcome the orthodoxies” if they want to achieve anything worth achieving.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York  stressed the need to hold our representatives accountable. (In fact, No Labels plans to establish watchdog groups to monitor every member of Congress for hyperpartisan activity.)

“Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski now moderated a panel discussion on hyperpartisanship.

Longtime political brainiac and CNN pundit David Gergen longed for the cooperative spirit of the political generation that came of age during World War II. Richard Nixon once confided to him that his proudest moment in politics came early in his career, when he crossed partisan lines to speak up in favor of adopting the Truman administration’s famed Marshall Plan.

Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana observed that the political process simply isn’t delivering the results we want. Citing rare examples of recent-vintage bipartisan action, he added that “it shouldn’t take a constitutional crisis, a terrorist invasion or a financial collapse” to get our politicians working together across the aisle.

MSNBC host and former Congressman Joe Scarborough talked about the “disconnect” between our political/media elites and the average American. The former need to listen to the latter, he said. Scarborough also cited the “remarkable” vitriol heaped on moderates by extremists in the media, adding that extremism drives ratings.

Gergen noted with alarm that “the middle has been hollowed out” in both American politics and our class structure. Moderate candidates have trouble winning their own primaries, and the traditional American middle class is being squeezed out of existence. “We can’t just keep doing what we’re doing,” he warned.

Former West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, who recently inherited the Senate seat occupied by the late Robert Byrd, sounded an alarmist note about our national debt, which, he argued, will cause us to “make cowardly decisions.”

Bayh noted that China already sees us as a declining power, with “profound adverse implications for our future.” As if to temper the ominous tone of the discussion, he finally urged us to “support the sane candidate regardless of party” and (much to my satisfaction) “join the raging center.”

Manchin agreed that we need both parties, and both ends of the political spectrum, working together to solve problems. “A bird needs both wings to fly straight,” he said.

To be continued…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2010 11:33 am

    Your voice counts – whether I agree with you or not. A key facet of the current era and possibly its salvation is that we can hear many voices, we are not constrained because the means of communication are controlled by government or a small elite.
    The roots of “No Labels” demise are in the last word of its slogan. “Forward”. There is a presumption that government is the answer, and that something more must be accomplished inside of government, that agreement and compromise are necessary to do so.
    Look at congress today, about the only thing both parties can seem to come to an agreement on before heading home for Christmas is – drum roll propping up failed ethanol policies – something almost the entire political universe – even “inconvenient Al” have come to recognise as a boondoggle. There were four independent means to rein in ethanol policies – not changing the mandated mix in gasoline, eliminating the ethanol gas tax, eliminating the subsidy to ethanol producers and eliminating the tariffs on foreign ethanol.
    Whatever else we can argue that congress should or should not have done before the holidays this is pretty much top of everyone’s list of don’ts.
    So long as you believe that government is the answer to most of our problems you empower lunacy in Washington, your state capitol and local government, and you assure that in the end you will not get what you want. We can pit all conservatives and liberals against each other in the ThunderDome, if the end result is a powerful government run by “moderates” the end result will be no better.
    If you want government that works you need to accept a model of government that does not require government by the best of us, and the best of our nature. This is the underlying fallacy of no-labels and the reason that the right finds it indistinguishable from the left.

    • December 21, 2010 1:36 pm

      Dave: Why does it have to be all or none? Why not a government just powerful enough to provide a safety net for the poor without entitling them to a lifetime pass… and to regulate the rapacity of corporate and Wall Street plutocrats without crippling old-fashioned free enterprise?

  2. Priscilla permalink
    December 19, 2010 12:36 pm

    I guess what I don’t understand is the problem that people have with vigorous debate. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean rancorous and angry debate, but, well, sometimes things can get testy when people feel strongly about issues…

    The No Labels thing sounds to me like a movement to “smooth over” real differences of opinion and policy and to declare that only centrist solutions are acceptable. I consider myself a moderate by temperament and believe in consensus, but there are certainly issues on which I feel there should be little compromise. As George Will said, in his column on the No Labels movement, ‘”Hyper-partisanship” is deplorable, but partisanship is politics.” And politics is how we get things done.

    Clean it up, tone it down, keep it civil, but don’t eliminate it or demonize it.

  3. December 21, 2010 1:42 pm

    Priscilla: The No Labels folks aren’t ideological centrists… they simply want our politicians to “do the right thing” as opposed to blindly siding with their own team on every issue. They used Sen. Everett Dirksen as an example of a Republican who risked his prestige within his party to cooperate with LBJ and promote needed civil rights legislation.

    Even I wouldn’t want everyone to be a centrist; we need to listen to perspectives from all points on the political spectrum. (I frequently check out Huffington Post and listen to Rush Limbaugh — even Glenn Beck.)

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