Sure, it was new. In the undeniably partisan climate of today's American political scene, still reeling from the divisive tactics of attack ads used during November's midterm elections, the idea of Democrats and Republicans coming together definitely seemed novel and different.
But was it really?
The launch of No Labels, a bipartisan organization that intends to become a nationwide grassroots movement working to eliminate hyper-partisan vitriol from the national debate, was billed as a time for politicians of all shades of red and blue to come together for a common cause. In the end, the event was a recycled mix of previously-fresh political tactics and a load of dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, with the occasional Republican-turned-independent defector thrown in for good measure.
There was the major multimedia presence, with affirmations being sent in by angry yet hopeful citizens over tweet and email throughout the conference as people watched the he seven hour webcast unfold in real time at Columbia University.
There were the teams of college students, smiling and bouncing, feeling like they were making a difference, choosing the rational argument but simply getting caught up in the emotional side of it all. There was the pithy slogan "Not Left. Not Right. Forward."
There was even the tailored pop song by Akon promoting the cause, with his own lyrics interjected with famous lines from historical speeches.
The adage 'what is old is new again' comes to mind.
Cynicism isn't fair in this situation, however, because amid the flurry of politicians and perfectly tame debates, it is important to remember that the event was the organization's official kickoff. The purpose was to inspire, to raise awareness, and to get its name onto the national stage.
The event connected people from across the country and encouraged them to remain politically active even though the next election is two years away. Headliners included Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN), Gov. Charlie Crist (I- FL), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), recently ousted Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE), former congressman and current MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
As many of the event's speakers were waxing longingly for the political days of yore, Bayh was quick to warn against romanticizing the past -- before admitting maybe the present is a tad worse.
"I think we search in vain for a golden era of comity in American politics, it was always a bit rough and tumble, but no doubt it is worse today," Bayh said.
Many talked about how, once they step foot in their Washington offices, partisanship rules their lives and they are discouraged from interacting with members of the other party. David Gergen, a political analyst who has worked in four different presidential administrations (two Republican, two Democratic), said that the change is a product of differing generations, between the post WWII politicians -- many of whom had served together -- and today.
"What we see in Washington is a reflection of culture," Gergen said. "We lost a lot of the civic culture that was there."
Deeming himself a suitable voice for bipartisanship, having been both a Republican and now an independent, the Florida Governor Crist said that politicians need to reprioritize, focusing more on their constituents than their own campaign coffers.
"[Politicians have to] talk about the country before the party, you talk about the people before the party bosses," he said.
As much as talk of transparency and government accountability reigned supreme, the facts do not necessarily follow suit. No Labels is registered as a 501(c)4 non-profit, known most recently as the type of tax filing used Karl Rove and Tea Party groups largely due to the fact that donors' names do not need to be publicly disclosed.
While the group has not listed any individual donors, or the amounts they have donated, the Wall Street Journal reported that three funders included co-chairman of Loews Corp. Andrew Tisch, Panera Bread founder Ron Shaich and ex-Facebook executive Dave Morin, who is listed as one of No Labels' founding members on its website. Prior to the launch event, the group reportedly had already raised $1 million.
Lisa Borders, one of the group's founding members, said at the event that the only way for the group to survive financially was to stay true to its grassroots nature.
"Participation is good but we need donation," Borders said. "Each and every one of us starting with the leaders here at no labels, those of us who started the organization are now reaching to you and we're inviting you to join us, to contribute money so that get this movement not only moving but traction and powered forward."
About 1,000 people were at the event, including 300 students from 90 different colleges, not to mention those watching by webcast. Attendees were overwhelmingly happy and enthused about the prospects of No Labels taking off and changing the political climate in a grassroots campaign.
"It really did seem like frank conversations from people who are usually restricted to 30 second sound-bytes," said Mikhael Cohen, a New York University student and volunteer at the event.
"No matter what you think of Obama's politics, this is what he talked about in the campaign: he wanted moderates to come together. This is the physical platform that people wish he creates. It's a really, really empowering movement because it gives people the power," he continued.
Martha DiSario traveled from San Francisco to attend. Though she is now involved in an environmental non-profit, she spent 20 years working in Washington, D.C. in various political jobs in and out of Democratic administrations and lobbying firms.
"I found this year's political campaigns to be the most disconcerting," DiSario said. "There's a lot of anger and its not only at the state of the economy but also at the political parties. People are disgusted and want solutions, and what they're getting instead are stalemates. I think this is tapping into something that people want."
One problem facing No Labels, as well as other grassroots campaigns and movements including the tea party, is its ability to sustain attention and involvement in spite of the next election being two years away.
"A challenge facing this is that it's easy to get people excited about a campaign or a political party, and harder for something like this," DiSario said.
On its website, the group lays out several goals for 2011, including the creation of a political action committee to help candidates who fall victim to hyper-partisan attacks in their primaries, as well as trying to establish No Labels satellite groups in all 435 congressional districts. They also have an ongoing counter of how many people have signed up online to support their pledge, with the goal initially set at 10,000. When the supporters broke the 9,300 mark, they bumped the goal up to 25,000. To date, they have more than 10,000 signers.
"They never sought big media, and from the start it was a grassroots movement," Cohen said. "To do that by word of mouth is very impressive."
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