At the No Labels gathering, the most resounding message from centrist politicians and consultants on the stage was simple: “We need backup.”
“Politicians respond to numbers, and you just haven't had a vehicle,” said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon. “We want to create a vehicle to amplify your voices.”
Policy wasn't on the table so much as political culture. Speaker after speaker mourned the loss of civility and the willingness to work – or even communicate – across the aisle. They blamed everything from partisan lunching habits in Congress to the acceleration of the media cycle to the vitriole of online commenters.
But the driving sentiment was that there's not enough political cover for elected officials who make bipartisan compromises. Outgoing Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana said it has created warped incentives that push lawmakers to the margins, for fear of being targeted by party activists at the extremes. “Here's a movement that will support you in doing the right thing,” something he said is essential in party primaries when centrists candidates face off against more ideologically-driven candidates. “That's where a group like this could have a real difference.”
And the No Labels organization has plans to get that ground game in place by 2012. In the next year, their aim is to recruit a million new members and set up chapters on 150 college campuses and in all 435 Congressional districts. They are also raising money for a Political Action Committee that will support candidates and will start a new rating system. For this, the focus won't be issue allegiance but behavior, by tracking criteria like Senators and representatives' willingness to sponsor bipartisan legislation and their civility in the process.
But No Labels' political strategy about what to do with all this organization is still evolving. New York Times columnist David Brooks told the crowd a third party wasn't necessary, while MSNBC's Joe Scarborough called a third party "inevitable." No Labels leader Nancy Jacobson says the group isn't asking members to give up their membership in the Democratic or Republican Party. "It means never give up your label, but put it aside" to solve problems, she said.
For now, the grassroots leaders who traveled from across the country sounded content to focus on defining the problem of what needs to be fixed in politics.
“We want to have a big tent, so we need to be as nonspecific as possible,” said Brett Hellerman, the CEO of an asset management firm in New Haven. A Republican, he was inspired to get involved in party by the Tea Party activism in the midterm elections. He's now a leader for the Connecticut No Labels Chapter after finding out about the group at a house party two months ago.
But Hellerman said it won't be long before No Labels needs to embrace specific policies. He said he's got to be able to tell people something when he's recruiting them. "Moderates are milquetoast. We've got to get away from that," he said. “We're going to have stand for something to be a political movement.”
"This is either the start of something big or it will fizzle out," said Elvin Dowling, a Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-Independent from The Bronx. He wasn't making any predictions, but for this day, finding this political community was enough. "I thought I was alone in this."