“If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution! “
NEW YORK—A new anthem filled a hall in Columbia University Monday. Recorded by the pop singer Akon, the song had people from all over the country momentarily dancing as they held their first national gathering to launch a movement called “No Labels.”
Some New Haven activists helping to launch the movement found the beat. (Click on the play arrow to watch West Rock Alderman Darnell Goldson and East Rock’s Debra Hauser.)
After the beat died down, after a day of speeches and panels about how to inject “sensible” post-partisan decision-making into American politics, some political dissonance lingered beneath the platitudes of the anthem (“All we ask from you is some honesty”) and of the event’s founding declaration. (“We must put our labels aside, and put the issues and what’s best for the nation first.”)
Questions remained about how organizers will avoid pitfalls common to similar attempts at challenging the Republican and Democratic parties’ grip on power.
“Center” Vs. “Beyond”
“There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”
The estimated 1,000 participants at Monday’s convention are returning to New Haven and communities in 49 other states with a mission: Sign up one million “No Labels” members by the end of 2011. Hold “meet ups” and town hall meetings. Raise money. All in preparation for seeking to influence the 2012 elections by backing candidates in all 435 U.S. Congressional districts who work across party lines and defy their parties’ ideological extremes.
Organizers chose not to bog the founding gathering down in arguments over specific issues—over, say, cap and trade or immigration reform. Instead, they sought to build on a sense of disaffection with D.C. gridlock and “hyperpartisanship.” To build an alternative movement to the right-wing Tea Party and left-wing MoveOn.org.
Does that make “No Labels” a “centrist” movement?
Some of Monday’s speakers clearly said so.
Recently deposed U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh urged the crowd to form a “centrist” movement (to rescue candidates like him).
“Join the raging center!” Bayh declared. Well, “declared” may be an overstatement. So might the exclamation point. He suggested it. Calmly. Reasoned. Someone clapped.
Former U.S. Sen. Dan Glickman echoed the call for a “grassroots” centrist movement to represent the kind of people he used to represent. People who live in Kansas.
“We represent the sensible center,” said former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, one of three chairs of Connecticut’s “No Labels” chapter. “The middle.”
The event’s prime organizers, on the other hand, specifically avoided the “centrist” label. They’ve signed up prominent conservatives, liberals, and independent/moderates as founding members. On Monday they portrayed “No Labels” not as a party with an ideology (not even a centrist ideological), but rather a place where people of different beliefs agree to work together in the national interest and find “common sense” areas of agreement on the budget deficit, health care, education.
“Never give up your label,” national coordinator Nancy Jacobson. “Just put it aside so government can do what it needs to do.”
Fellow national organizer Jon Cowan (at center in photo) outlined for the gathering “3 Cs” as the basis on which the movement will support candidates:
• “Cosponsorship”: Whether elected officials have introduced legislation in tandem with members of the other major party.
• “Common good”: Bucking the party to back ideas that help the country.
• “Civility”: Avoiding the demonization of and personal attacks on opponents. (As in: The president is a secretly Kenyan-born Muslim socialist fascist Communist who hates white people.)
Cowan said “No Labels” will draw up a rating system for members of Congress similar to those prepared by the NRA, Chamber of Commerce, AFL-CIO, and environmental groups.
“It’s not about the center,” Cowan said in a conversation after he spoke. “It’s about reaching across the aisle.”
Cowan was asked if organizers learned any lessons, say, from the experience of Ross Perot’s Reform Party? That “centrist” (or post-partisan, putatively post-ideological) effort dissolved into sectarian bickering and wacko attempts at hijacking after Perot himself ran for president in 1992 (winning 18 percent of the vote and catapulting the deficit at the top of the government’s agenda).
Cowan responded immediately.
“The two biggest lessons were: Don’t form a third party; form a grassroots movement like the Tea Party or MoveOn.org. And don’t organize yourself around a charismatic leader.”
Cowan was asked how “No Labels” will stay on message when it comes time to settle on an issues platform for that scorecard. And when it encourages 435 local chapters of independent-minded people to form at the grassroots.
Will it seek to plant the agenda under cover of “grassroots,” the way that Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks funded and shaped the Tea Party? Will it risk letting an extreme faction in truly grassroots movement hijack the platform?
“Trying to find the balance between local control and national focus is the test for any movement,” Cowan responded. “That’s the art. Movements fall apart when they lose that balance.”
Cowan predicted that attacking the deficit will likely emerge as a central position around which the movement can coalesce.
Compromise? Or Sellout?
Even that issue’s fine print could prove tricky, if Monday’s session was any indication.
Some participants hailed the budget agreement struck by President Obama and Congressional Republicans as the model of useful “compromise” No Labels has in mind.
Connecticut’s David Walker tore into the agreement from the microphone as an example of how both Republicans and Democrats are failing to address the deficit. He noted that the compromise involves billions of dollars of tax cuts—without spending cuts. Meaning growing the deficit even more in a country where federal, state and local government debt equals 100 percent of the economy.
“People call this a compromise?” Walker asked in disbelief. “What kind of compromise is that? What planet are these people on?”
Now That’s Chutzpah
An afternoon panel discussion raised the question of whether the fledgling movement can hold those charismatic (or rich) national figures “accountable” beyond having them mouth the right rhetoric.
That panel featured third-term New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (at left in above photo), whose top aide helped bring some of the No Labels organizers together, and who really, truly promises he’s really, truly not planning to run for president in 2012. Just as he really, truly promised in 2001 that he believed that no New York mayor should serve more than two terms.
The panel, moderated by MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan, focused on “Electoral Reform In America.” Ratigan and others repeatedly praised Bloomberg as a model mayor and a champion of clean government and electoral reform. Bloomberg spoke at length about his historic support for reforming election laws. He never mentioned how he once helped finance a successful move to create term limits in New York—then leaned on community leaders whose not-for-profit groups he helps finance to help him throw out those limits so he could run for a third term.
No one on the “No Labels” panel asked him about that either.
But it wasn’t a day for fine print. It was a day for a grand vision. It was a day for optimism that people from different ideological and geographic backgrounds can unite to counter “hyperpartisanship.”
Participants like New Haven’s Darnell Goldson acknowledged that crucial details remain to be worked out.
“I’m not sure what the endgame is,” Goldson said. “But I’m going to go along for the ride.”
Previous coverage of the No Labels movement: