‘I don’t really know what will come out of it,” an attendee told me at the founders’ meeting of “No Labels” on Monday. “But it sounds good.”
And thus a movement was born.
Or so the founders of this “social welfare advocacy organization” would have us think. One thousand people crammed into the Alfred Lerner Hall at Columbia University to take part in the founding festivities: the speeches, the panels, the testimonials. They were “Democrats, Republicans and Independents” — their declaration read — who believed that “hyper-partisanship is destroying our politics” and that we must “put the issues and what’s best for the nation first.”
Whatever that means.
That morning, the founders spoke as if they were doing something important, even if it was unclear what exactly they were doing. “They said it couldn’t be done,” Nancy Jacobson, a former finance chair for Sen. Evan Bayh (D., Ind.), told the crowd. “I’ve never seen more interest for any project I’ve worked for.”
“This is the way change always begins in America,” said William Galston, a former domestic-policy adviser to President Clinton, “from the bottom up.”
“This is a rebellious project,” added John Avlon, a columnist for the Daily Beast.
“Welcome to our Woodstock of democracy,” announced Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to Pres. George W. Bush. “We want to create a vehicle to amplify your voices.”
But whose voices were they?
Those of the cool, civil centrists — people who just want politicians to play nice. Jonathan Cowan, president of the moderate think tank Third Way, outlined the group’s objectives later in the conference. “We want to use the same tools that the Left and the Right use” to promote moderation, he said. In 2011, No Labels hopes to sign up 1 million members, who will fulfill its mission by “monitoring the three c’s: cosponsors, common ground, and civility.” Did legislators cosponsor bills written by members of the opposite party? Did they seek “common ground” with their opponents? And, through it all, were they civil?
Besides discouraging incivility, however, it was uncertain what their purpose was — or how they intended to achieve it. What constituted “common ground” or “common-sense solutions”?
Indeed, even the attendees noticed the conference’s want of content. “I don’t see people building consensus,” Mica Ward, a federal contractor from Denver, told me. When asked how No Labels would build consensus, she responded — with a knowing nod of the head — “I’m hoping to learn that today.” After thinking about it further, she added, “I’m writing an op-ed for the state paper.”
Yvette Simpson, a third-party candidate for Cincinnati’s city council, stressed that her effort wasn’t about “issues, but ways we solve problems.” Like transparency, for instance.
LaTarro Traylor, a law student from Grand Rapids, made a similar point. “I’m tired of entering debates focusing on our differences. We should focus on our similarities,” she told me. On education, for example, we should start from the recognition that we all want good schools for our children. When I added that Democrats and Republicans seemed to agree — to be building consensus — that teachers’ unions had become too powerful, Traylor politely rejoined, “Well, there’s no need to beat on teachers’ unions.”
The people in the audience were more sympathetic characters than the ones onstage. The speakers were a parade of sanctimonious moderates, who told of their storied legislative achievements. Democratic congressman Bruce Braley of Iowa, for instance, had sponsored a law requiring the government to write in plain English. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, when he was speaker of the California Assembly, forced Republicans to sit with Democrats. And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) worked with Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) to create an online database of pork, er, infrastructure projects. See what a little civility can do?
Yes, No Labels is a party of parliamentarians. Its members emphasized process, not policy — probably because they expected a civil process would result in liberal policy. Or at least in liberal politicians. In the afternoon, Dylan Ratigan, the MSNBC host, moderated a panel that included outgoing Florida governor Charlie Crist and Delaware congressman Michael Castle, both of whom lost in Republican primaries. The panel bemoaned the influence of “party bosses” who had corrupted our political system, which rejected such upstanding gentlemen as Crist and Castle. A curious complaint, considering that Crist and Castle were their party bosses’ preferred candidates in the midterm elections, until voters decided otherwise.
The conference wasn’t a total washout. Newark mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, gave a rousing speech in which he discussed — in greater detail than anyone else — his work with conservatives on gun policy, enterprise zones, and prisoner-reentry programs. He even praised the Manhattan Institute, a right-of-center think tank.
Booker’s brew of moderation is telling. He is working with MI on the Newark Prisoner Reentry Initiative, which applies the lesson learned from welfare reform — that holding a job is the best way for those on the margins to move into the mainstream — to help ex-convicts stay out of jail. (In a city where the recidivism rate is 62 percent, the NPRI has seen only 10 percent of its participants return to crime.)
Recall that welfare reform was once far outside the cozy middle of urban-policy thought — it was an idea supported mainly by “heartless” Republicans. Conservatives had fought tooth and nail for decades before they were able to reform open-ended welfare — and then they had to listen to Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan predict that the reform would result in inner-city children “sleeping on grates.” History has shown the critics of welfare reform to be wrong, and an idea once considered beyond the pale has proven to be excellent policy — reducing child poverty and intergenerational dependency across all races. It’s a good thing welfare reformers didn’t listen to the polite, civil centrists.
There may be such a thing as good, principled moderation. But No Labels does not give voice to it. Instead, it aims to replace the rough and tumble of political debate with a consensus — one that is predetermined, impervious to criticism, and insidiously liberal.
— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.