NEW YORK--The new group No Labels held its kick-off at Columbia University last week and announced an effort to try to reform our national political culture offering bipartisanship, civility and centrist political solutions.
It’s a goal that virtually every recent poll shows a majority of Americans also want.
But not so fast. Political pundits from Rush Limbaugh to MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, who are in the business of amplifying the differences between the two parties, have roundly dismissed the No Labels idea.
No Labels would like to supplant some of the influence of the two major political parties and reform the system from within. The group hopes to do this by raising money, organizing voters, and creating a political action committee to support candidates they like and they have an initial budget of $1 million which should help. [Follow the money in Congress.]
The group’s founders are a politically well connected bunch including Nancy Jacobson a longtime Democratic fundraiser who worked for the Democratic National Committee and Bill Clinton. Her husband is Mark Penn, chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Another organizer of the effort is Mark McKinnon who was a senior adviser to former President George W. Bush and to Sen. John McCain during his 2008 presidential run.
McKinnon appeared on Meet the Press Sunday and said No Labels has received “a tremendous response from the middle of America” but has also succeeded in uniting the left and right. “Rush Limbaugh, Frank Rich they are all attacking us.”
There can be little argument that the current political environment is toxic and polarized--the tax cut deal not withstanding--and will undoubtedly get worse next year.
Nearly 40 percent of American voters consider themselves not Republicans or Democrats but independents and they are particularly disgusted with the current state of politics in this country. [Check out this month's best political cartoons.]
If No Labels is to succeed it will have to mobilize the independent, centrist voters who show up at the polls for big elections and then fade back into the woodwork. These kind of voters are not typically very engaged in the political process and it will take a change in mindset to convince them they should be.
No Labels has set a goal of recruiting a million members around the country in the next year, organizing chapters in all 435 congressional districts, setting up 150 chapters on college campuses, establishing a rating system for holding elected officials accountable for their actions, monitoring them for bipartisan behavior and supporting candidates who are in line with the No Labels mission.
But Frank Rich writing in the Sunday New York Times said “the notion that civility and nominal bipartisanship would accomplish any of the heavy lifting required to rebuild America is childish magical thinking, and, worse, a mindless distraction from the real work before the nation.”
Joe Scarborough, former GOP congressman and host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”, appearing on Meet the Press said commentators like Rich and Limbaugh “have the luxury of never actually governing.”
“Frank Rich and the left have had a year of magical thinking…they thought they could get everything they wanted and when they didn’t they went off in a corner and pouted,” said Scarborough.
Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne, was also critical of the No Labels effort.
Liberals like Dionne and Rich believe that it is completely wrong to say both parties have moved equally to the extreme or to equate the liberal MoveOn.org group with the Tea Party movement.
“The truth is that the American right is much farther from anything that can fairly be described as 'the center' than is the left,” writes Dionne.
I think a lot of centrist independent voters in middle America would disagree with that assertion.
Meanwhile, conservative columnist George Will called the No Labels message “mush” and said that politics is partisanship.
“When people label themselves conservatives or liberals we can reasonably surmise where they stand concerning important matters,” Will writes. But not everyone in this country is a liberal like Dionne and Rich or a conservative like Will.
There are more people in the middle, than on either side. And right now they are not being well served by the system. Maybe No Labels can help with that--but it will undoubtedly be a hard slog.
The American people are dissatisfied with what the two political parties--who respond not to the voters once they get elected but to their party leaders, base and fundraisers--are giving them.
They feel both parties have lost sight of what’s important and are not really paying attention to them but to lobbyists, donors and fundraisers.
Rich acknowledges that “both parties are bought off by special interests who game the system and stack it against the rest of us” and decries “the kind of revolving-door synergy between corporate power and governance that turns off Americans left, right and, yes, center.”
Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who is leaving the Senate after two terms, and has cited frustration with the political process and the way the Senate does business as a big part of the reason, said at the No Labels event that the “vast middle” of Americans “don’t care which political party you belong to….they want practical politics.”
“The public is ahead of the politicians” when it comes to their wanting a less partisan environment to solve the nation’s problems, Bayh said.
I think the public might also be ahead of most political pundits, bloggers, and talking heads.
Now it’s up to No Labels to prove it and to engage and energize that vast middle that wants something different.