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'No Labels' Speaker David Gergen in NYC: 'The Country Is on the Edge'

3 years ago
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NEW YORK – More than a thousand Democrats, Republicans and independents converged on New York City on Monday to launch a national political organization to bring together Americans and put an end to damaging partisanship and divisive labels.

Aptly, it's called "No Labels. Not Left. Not Right. Forward."

From as far as Oregon and Colorado, Arkansas and Michigan, No Labels enthusiasts descended on New York City and filled a large hall at Columbia University to hear No Labels' founding leaders and guest speakers summon Americans to form a grassroots movement to unify the nation and support moderate politicians of all parties.

David Gergen, the political strategist and former top aide to several Democratic and Republican presidents, boiled down the crisis of polarization in the nation, saying that partisanship and special interests continually block what must be done in government, like energy and education reform, issues that have been at the forefront of the nation's agendas for 30 to 40 years.

"All these problems are coming at us at once,'' he said about the current political climate. "We deal with them now,'' he said, or risk going down as a nation. "The country is on the edge."

On the same panel -- "Hyperpartisanship in America'' -- Joe Scarborough, former GOP congressman and now anchor of "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, said that unless the Democrats and Republicans repair the chasm that divides them, independent third-party candidates will start winning. "It is inevitable," he said, "if both parties continue doing what they've been doing."

Retiring Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, one of the major backers of the No Labels movement, didn't quite agree that partisanship will lead to a third party, but said he foresaw a "period of churning," with power going back and forth from one major party to the other.

Wrapping up the morning session at the conference, Bayh urged the audience and Americans across the nation to "join the raging center."

No Labels, which plans to grow with online individual donations, envisions a nationwide movement mobilized by citizen chapters in all 435 congressional districts. Supporters are urged to hold town halls and "meetups" at private homes. Driven in part by the success of the conservative tea party movement and wide political divisions in Washington and across the nation, a core of centrist activists, working with an initial $1 million budget, are geared up to shape chapters in all 50 states and build a movement of a million participants who will work to exert a moderating influence on elected officials and candidates.

"The driving rationale for No Labels is that we know there are millions of Americans who are sick of the hyper-partisanship in Washington,'' Mark McKinnon, an Austin-based Republican political adviser who is one of the group's founders, told me.

"We are not the tea party, and we are not MoveOn,'' said McKinnon, who worked in the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain. "We are just a passionate band of citizens dedicated to a more civil dialogue and hope to be a microphone to amplify the voices of millions of Americans from the vast middle of America who feel like they aren't being heard."

On Monday, they unveiled their movement at a daylong convention-style National Founder's Meeting here at the Alfred Lerner Hall at Columbia. With such a prominent site, in the largest media market in the nation, No Labels organizers anticipated heavy media attention to help them get their message out there.

To that end, they enlisted a glittering list of political celebrities and marquee names, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, an independent; Sen. Bayh; Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York; Scarborough; and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat.

Those were not the only flashy names. Altogether some two dozen high-profile figures from the news media, the cable talk shows and electoral politics appeared on stage, answered questions and participated in panel discussions on such issues as electoral reform in America.

In a celebratory atmosphere, with some of the hoopla of national political conventions, the morning-to-afternoon program included a rousing musical number performed by the orange-shirted No Labels staff of some two dozen young people rapping and bouncing on stage to the audience's rhythmic clapping. The Senegalese-American rapper star AKON was scheduled to perform the "No Labels Anthem.''

It is probably no coincidence that Bloomberg, the billionaire media mogul, was among the best-known participants. He had to have endeared himself to the No Labels group with his blunt speech in Brooklyn on Wednesday criticizing the federal government's handling of the economy and saying that elected officials in Washington put partisan bickering above economic growth. His speech intensified speculation here that he might run for president as an independent in 2012, speculation he deflated on "Meet the Press" on Sunday when he categorically denied he would run for president.

No Labels, which is a 504 (c) 4 organization and requires donors to report contributions to the IRS, will endorse and perhaps help finance candidates in party primaries but not in national elections.

"This is a movement and not a party," McKinnon said when asked if the group would endorse a moderate like Bloomberg. "And this is not a stalking horse for a Michael Bloomberg independent candidacy."

Far from being in a position to propel or empower a potential presidential candidate, No Labels is a political start-up. The idea surfaced a year ago, just about the time that the Republican tea party candidate Scott Brown shocked the political world by winning Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts.

Interesting, too, looking at the political backgrounds of the organizers of No Labels, there is an inescapable connection to the Clintons. Several worked in Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns and in his administration. Some also worked in Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

No Labels' founder and prime mover, Nancy Jacobson, is a longtime fundraiser, creator of the Women's Leadership Forum and well-known Washington hostess. Jacobson, a political science major at Syracuse who earned her political stripes in Gary Hart's failed presidential campaign in 1984, has worked for Bayh for 15 years, was an adviser in the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton and finance chair of the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Leadership Council under President Clinton.

Jacobson joined Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign as a senior adviser in 2007. Not insignificantly, she is the wife of Mark Penn, the Democratic pollster and prominent political consultant who managed Hillary Clinton's campaign until he resigned under fire. The couple is known for their dinners for powerful Democrats, journalists and other Washington figures at their Georgetown home.

Besides Jacobson and McKinnon, who like all founding leaders work as volunteers, the leaders of No Labels include John Avlon, the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America"; Kiki McLean, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign; Lisa Borders, the former president of the Atlanta City Council; and Bill Galston, a domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the School of Public Policy of the University of Maryland.

Despite such heavy hitters, McKinnon said, "There is no hierarchy" in No Labels. "Citizens are organizing themselves in all 50 states. But they are doing so of their own accord with very little direction from us."

For a fledging political group operating on a shoe string, it certainly trumpets a far-reaching vision.

"No Labels will organize, energize and mobilize the masses of Americans who feel disenfranchised by today's hyper-partisan political gridlock,'' says its mission statement. "It's hard to find politicians anymore who are genuinely willing to work across party lines to solve problems. This organization aims to change that.''

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