Out of the Woods / A 'No Labels' approach to bipartisanship
Published 9:22 am, Monday, January 3, 2011
If you are one of millions of American who hope that the recent rare display of bipartisanship in the lame duck session of Congress will continue this year, I've got news for you: It will and it can, if more voters take note of a recent landmark -- perhaps history-making -- meeting of a nonpartisan group called "No Labels" at Columbia University in New York last month.
More than 1,000 politicians, media and activists from both parties in 50 states -- including such well-known independent politicians like U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Evan Bayh of Indiana and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- played key roles in what was billed as "National Founders Day" on Dec. 13.
Brooks, one of the first speakers, said, in part: "[Politicians] are pretty good people actually, but they're emotional freaks of some way or another." The political commentator, viewed by most readers as an enlightened conservative, said there needs to be a cultural change in the way that Washington works." We've reached the point where all human contact in Washington is distorted," he commented." He suggested that a bipartisan group like No Labels is necessary to aid those politicians who step out of party lines for the greater good.
No Labels is a grass-roots movement targeting the middle of American politics. It describes itself on its website (www.nolabels.org) this way: "We are Democrats, Republicans and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what's best for America." Its logo states: "No Labels. Not Left. Not Right. Forward."
It has already signed up scores of highly accomplished "Citizen Leaders" in all fields. In effect, this group is carrying out what President Barack Obama originally pledged to do in his presidential campaign: to change the tone of political dialogue in America by emphasizing civility, finding common ground, and working towards getting both major political parties to put the country before political party. He's been working on that for nearly two years.
I asked one of those who has joined No Labels, Westporter Rick Steinberg, a resident of for 20 years, along with his wife, Lana Lyon Steinberg, to explain why and how he -- a retired executive of PricewaterhouseCoopers and now a business consultant -- became interested. He has never before been active in politics.
"I became involved with the No Labels movement a few months ago," he says, "at the request of a colleague and friend, David Walker. Dave served in a number of federal government positions, most recently as U.S. comptroller general, heading the General Accountability Office. He asked my wife and me to become involved.
"What resonated most is the premise that politicians in this country have become extraordinarily polarized. Yes, there have long been differences between the major parties, but it now seems that Republicans and Democrats are increasingly at odds and can't seem to find the proverbial common ground. We've heard stories of congressmen told by their party that if they're seen even talking to members of the `other' party, they'll receive no further party support -- in other words, they'll become outcasts. This is different from past years when it was common for members of different parties to fight like cats and dogs in conference rooms, but later come together for cocktails and dinner and work out differences for the general good.
"What's perhaps most evident and destructive is seeing the party not occupying the White House -- whichever one at any point in time -- working to discredit the other party, even at the expense of constructively dealing with major issues confronting our nation," he said.
"It seems that solving America's problems takes a back seat to gaining points in the political marketplace. Well, our problems are sufficiently serious where we can no longer afford to have this go on any longer. We don't have the time or luxury of seeing our legislators continue to operate in this fashion.
"So, this is where No Labels comes in -- to break down the walls, and move to the center where problems can be thoughtfully and effectively dealt with. This is not a third party. Rather, it's a movement to bring Republicans, Democrats and Independents together to make the process work for the benefit of our country," he said.
Steinberg sums up, "I really can't forecast whether it will ultimately gain the support of enough of the American public to truly affect the political process. But what I can say is that the fundamental goal of this movement needs to be achieved, or else we'll find ourselves in dire straits down the road -- and not very far off from now. Being an eternal optimist, I have to believe No Labels, perhaps with similar movements that might be formed, is going to work to all of our benefit."
Naturally, like every new, idealistic endeavor, No Labels has its skeptics. New York Times columnist Frank Rich observed recently: "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.
"Sure, it would be swell if rhetorical peace broke out in Washington -- or on cable news networks -- but given that American politics have been rancorous since Boston's original Tea Party, wishing will not make it so. Bipartisanship is equally extinct," he added.
For myself, I am guardedly optimistic that No Labels can indeed evolve into a practical, hard-hitting national organization that can enlist the firepower and public relations skills of enough opinion-makers to turn No Labels into a meaningful political force that eventually will improve the political climate in America. At least that is my hope.