Read the Label
The new political group No Labels shows why labels exist.
Everything you need to know about the new political group No Labels is contained in its slogan: "Not Left. Not Right. Forward." It's smug. It sounds like an Obama campaign catchphrase. And it ignores the whole reason politics exists, which is that not everyone agrees on what "Forward" is.
A group of political and media A-listers descended on Columbia University Monday morning for the group's big launch event, which co-founder Mark McKinnon dubbed in his introductory remarks "our little Woodstock of democracy." No Label seeks to be the voice of reason in an increasingly hyper-partisan environment—a counterweight to interest groups at either end of the political spectrum. Instead of rewarding candidates who spew partisan talking points, No Label says it will raise money for moderate candidates who embrace what co-founder Jon Cowan calls the "three C's": co-sponsors, common ground, and civility.
The guest list at Monday's confab said as much about the group as its slogan. Attendees were a mix of media commentators (David Brooks, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski), recent political losers (former Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist), politicians who aren't seeking re-election (New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh), and moderates who have special permission to buck their party (incoming West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman). In other words, a bunch of people with nothing at stake.
Even if they did have something to lose, signing onto "No Labels" is risk-free. The group's mission statement is filled with the bland pablum of political campaigns. It's the kind of stuff that's so obvious, no one would ever disagree. "Americans are entitled to a government and a political system that works—driven by shared purpose and common sense." Unlike all those groups that prefer a political system that doesn't work. "Americans want a government that empowers people with the tools for success … provided that it does so in a fiscally prudent way." Me, I'm for spending wads of money on failure. "America must be strong and safe, ready and able to protect itself in a world of multiple dangers and uncertainties." That is going to upset their rival group, Americans Against Strength, Safety, Readiness, and Ability To Protect Ourselves. Their mission is so popular, even Akon could get behind it. (Sample lyric: "See a man with a blue tie/ See a man with a red tie/ So how about we tie ourselves together and get it done.") And if members were worried about how it would play in the polls, don't worry: Its founder, Nancy Jacobson, is married to Hillary Clinton pollster Mark Penn.
To prove that political compromise is possible, politicians at the No Label event touted their own bipartisan achievements. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand cited a bill she co-sponsored with Republican Sen. Tom Coburn that created searchable databases for earmarks. "He wants to ban all earmarks, and I like federal investments to create jobs, but one thing we agree on is about transparency," she said. Well, sure, but they still disagree on banning earmarks and federal spending. Cooperating on a softball issue like transparency doesn't change that.
The group takes a pass when it comes to issues that actually divide people, like gay marriage and abortion. Anticipating this critique, the group's Web site argues that social issues have been used to "keep Americans from working together." Instead, it says, "We want to help call a cease-fire in the culture wars by focusing on common ground goals rather than absolutist positions on the left or right." Even on an issue as polarizing as abortion, says co-founder and CNN personality John Avlon, most Americans agree that the procedure should be "safe, legal, and rare." But his answer seems to undermine the point of the group. If there's consensus on so many issues, what's the point of creating a group? To defend that consensus?
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.