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A coalition of Republicans, Democrats and independents launched an advocacy group this week. The group calls itself “No Labels” and uses the slogan “Not left. Not right. Forward.” Its founders say Americans are frustrated by how hyper-partisan the political discourse in the country has become. The group wants lawmakers to find common ground in the search for solutions to problems that plague the nation. Already “No Labels” has critics from the left and right. They question not only whether the group’s goals are realistic but whether they are even desirable. Finding common political ground in a partisan landscape.
- Jon Cowan co-founder of No Labels and president and co-founder of Third Way.
- Mickey Edwards Former Congressman (Oklahoma 1977-1993)and member of the House Republican leadership; former lecturer at Harvard and Princeton; and now vice president of the Aspen Institute.
- Ross Douthat columnist, The New York Times.
- E.J. Dionne Jr. senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, Washington Post columnist, and author of "Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right" and of "Stand Up Fight Back."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. A new political advocacy group made its debut this week called No Labels. It brings together moderates from the left and right, Democrats and Republicans. The group hopes to quickly sign up a million members across the nation. A primary goal is to persuade U.S. leaders to find common ground as the nation works together to solve key problems. Joining me in the studio to talk about prospects for a bipartisan America, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and The Brookings Institution. Good morning, E.J.
MR. E.J. DIONNEGood morning, Diane.
REHMFormer Republican Congressman Mickey Edwards, good morning to you, sir.
MR. MICKEY EDWARDSHi, Diane.
REHMNew York Times columnist Ross Douthat.
MR. ROSS DOUTHATGood morning, Diane.
REHMGood morning to you. And Jon Cowan, he's co-founder of No Labels. Good morning to you.
MR. JON COWANGood morning, Diane.
REHMAnd throughout the hour, we will take your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Jon Cowan, I'm going to start with you. Tell us about how No Labels got started. And what's its connection to Third Way?
COWANGreat. So, Diane, a little over a year ago, a year-and-a-half ago, a woman named Nancy Jacobson, who's been in Democratic politics a long time, a guy named Mark McKinnon, who many of your listeners probably know from the Bush years, and a number of other folks like myself on both the left and the right got together and said, we are all Democrats and Republicans. We've been in this business a long time. We care a great deal about our parties, but we care even more about our country.
COWANAnd what we saw happening in the country over the last few decades, and intensifying in the last few years, is hyper-partisanship. And what we came together to say was this kind of hyper-partisanship, my party, right or wrong, damn the consequences. Who cares if it's the best idea? It's my party's idea. We said that has got to change. And so we came together about a year ago to start a new political movement called No Labels. And earlier this week in New York at Columbia University, the No Labels movement, an organization was launched with over 1,000 people coming from around the country from all 50 states.
COWANCitizen leaders, each of whom said in their state, I'm going to build 435 congressional chapters of No Labels, so I can start pressuring my politicians, my members of the House, Senate, people at the state and local level, into not getting rid of their label, not denouncing that I'm a Democrat, I'm a Republican and independent, but setting aside their labels. So they can work together to try to find common ground and solve the country's most pressing problems.
REHMSo you call it a movement. You did not want to call it a party.
COWANAbsolutely. No Labels is not a stalking horse for anybody who is in politics, including Michael Bloomberg, who was at the launch of No Labels in New York, or Charlie Crist or any of the others who were there. It's not a separate political party. It is a grassroots movement of Americans who want to come together across party lines to solve the nation's biggest problems.
REHMAnd what would you identify as the goals, the primary goals of No Labels?
COWANPrimary goals of No Labels are -- the primary goal is to advance one very simple single idea, which is asking politicians to put aside their labels and actually get something done. When there are major issues that come before the country, instead of the two political parties we're treating to their extremes -- the far right and the far left -- the goal of No Labels is to create a new amount of political pressure, combating the Tea Party on the right, move on on the left to create pressure to actually find common ground.
COWANTo answer your other question, and to speak for me personally, I'm also a co-founder and the president of a group called Third Way, a moderate think tank here in Washington. We focus on the ideas, moderate policy and politics. I care about this a great deal because, from my 20 years in politics serving inside and outside of administrations like the Clinton administration and running think tanks and grassroots organizations, one of the biggest missing pieces I see is that when members of Congress go to take a vote, they go to work on something. They only hear from people on the extremes. They never hear from people who want them to actually work together.
REHMJon Cowan, he's co-founder of No Labels and president and co-founder of Third Way. E.J. Dionne, you wrote in this morning's Washington Post, "My attitude is moderately supportive and moderately cynical, accented by a moderate touch of cynicism."
DIONNERight. Moderately critical.
REHMSorry, so sorry. Sorry. Forgive me.
DIONNESure. I mean, first of all, Third Way says it's against petty partisanship. Let us all agree we're against petty partisanship. And there are a couple of things they're saying that I think were important in their founding document. They talked about fact-based discussions. Now, that doesn't sound very radical, but there is an awful lot of discussion in politics right now that's totally disconnected from the facts. Good for them. They don't like the meanness and nastiness that's going on. And meanness is not a substitute for real argument, so I cheer them for that. But I think Jon, in his discussion, gave away what I find troubling here. He used the word far left. I challenge him to show me where that far left is.
DIONNEI'd love to know of where that is. I think the basic difficulty I have with this group arises from a false equivalence they are making between our current left and our current right. The truth is that the American right has moved much farther from anything that can fairly be called the center than the left has. I mean, even -- you know, in the column, I said even socialists, real socialists -- people who call themselves socialists -- they're not for nationalizing industry anymore. They're for the market. There is no far left. And that the core problem -- and if you look at the last Congress, Obama -- President Obama kept moving toward the Republicans. They didn't even put a single-payer health plan on the table. The Obama health plan is a moderate Republican health plan from 15 years ago -- Senator JV's plan.
DIONNESo I don't see the problem as, somehow, some far left being really dangerous. Now, if the No Labelers remind us of how extreme the right has become, and they do try to broker an alliance between the center and the left, which is the only way to stop this resurgent and increasingly conservative right, I think they could play a constructive role. Last quick point, they were (word?) pointed out in politico, this meaning -- he said, there was one label largely absent, Republican.
REHMYeah, but he...
DIONNEThere aren't many Republicans who are ready to play in this nice moderate field that they are talking about. And a lot of the ones they had -- lovely people like Mike Castle of Delaware, Bob Inglis of South Carolina -- lost primaries to the right and the Republican Party.
REHME.J. Dionne, he is with The Washington Post and The Brookings Institution. Turning to you, Ross Douthat, I know you're eager to get in.
DOUTHATOh, absolutely. Well, let me -- I suppose -- let me opt to the cynicism level a little bit here. I think that I would find No Labels a little more admirable if it were a stalking horse for a political party or a political candidate. I think that if you look back across American history at the moments where sort of alternatives to the major parties have emerged and made a big difference and really reshaped our national life -- going back to the progressive era all the way up through Ross Perot in the early 1990s -- they've usually been nakedly political. And I don't think that that's a bad thing. I think that, historically, third sort of "Third Way" movements have emerged by focusing on an issue or issues that the major parties are ignoring. In the case of Ross Perot, it was the deficit, obviously, among other things.
DOUTHATIf you go back and look at George Wallace, who I imagine is not a figure that No Labels would take as a model, but he was a model of someone who, you know, had a big impact on American politics. He picked up on American anxiety about rising crime and disorder in the late '60s and '70s. So that's what successful Third Way movements tend to do. They pick an issue. They find a candidate, and they -- you know, they hammer away at that issue. But they take strong opinions. They take -- what you might even call in some cases -- extreme opinions. Ross Perot, kind of an extreme figure in certain ways, and I don't think that's a bad thing. And, I think, the danger with a group like No Labels -- I think what was missing in the lovely presentation we just heard was the mention of any specific issue or position.
REHMRoss Douthat, he is a columnist for The New York Times. Turning to you, Congressman Mickey Edwards, you are affiliated somehow with No Labels. Explain that if you will.
EDWARDSWell, you know, they've several times approached me about being part of the No Labels movement, and I do support parts of it. I support the idea of not focusing on party labels, not focusing on whether you're left or right. But there's -- and there are a couple of things in the mission statement of No Labels that reflect what I've been talking about a long time. The problem is not labels. Labels have nothing to do with it. It is the problem of having turned over a lot of the political system to parties.
EDWARDSYou know, James Madison and George Washington were right. Political parties have turned out to be a disaster, so that -- closed primaries, which resulted in nominating people like Christine O'Donnell, who could never have won in an open primary or people like that, the way you let the parties control the redistricting process through the state legislatures. That's the problem. The problem is the party system itself. And No Labels has on its mission statement to move toward open primaries and to take away party control over districting.
EDWARDSI agree with that. But one important point here. I don't agree that what we should be looking for is some sort of a magical center. No progress in America has ever taken place from the center -- you know, the Civil Rights movement, the labor movement, women's movement. If you're going to move towards justice, it comes from the edges. It doesn't come from the center.
REHMMickey Edwards, former congressman from Oklahoma, member of the House Republican leadership. We're going to take a short break. We have many callers lined up. We'll get to you shortly. Stay with us.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, we're talking this morning about the No Labels movement -- not a party, a movement. We have one of the co-founders of No Labels here in the studio, Jon Cowan. Also, Ross Douthat, he's a columnist for The New York Times. Mickey Edwards, former congressman from Oklahoma. E.J. Dionne, Washington Post columnist, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. Just before the break, Congressman Edwards said you get no progress from the so-called magical center. It comes from people who do want to push something, like integration of schools from women vote. How do you respond to that?
COWANWell, Diane, I'll respond to that and then a couple of other things that was said. The -- Mickey's right in that, in American politics, it takes people at the grassroots pushing from extremes. But it also takes politicians who are willing to compromise, to find common ground. And sometimes that's in the center. That is not...
REHMAll right. I'm going to stop you right there. Congressman Edwards, would you agree that, currently, the political discourse has become so frayed that there is -- it's greatly difficult to move forward on any issue?
EDWARDSWell, absolutely. But the reason for that is the loyalty that one feels to a political party.
REHMTo a party.
EDWARDSIf, Diane -- if you got elected to Congress -- and you'd be great in Congress --...
REHMNever, never, never.
EDWARDS…the people who voted for you would have judged you and thought you're going to bring your intelligence, your character, to evaluating the issues and deciding what should be done. That's not what happens now. What happens is all the Democrats stick together, and all the Republicans stick together against the Democrats, following the party line. Brainpower has been turned off in Congress, and it shows.
REHMSo what about that, Ross Douthat, that you have so much cohesion to party right now that you don't have people honoring the issue?
DOUTHATWell, I guess I'd dispute a little bit the premise that -- I agree with the premise that partisanship in American politics has increased over the last 20, 30, even 40 years. I think it's less clear that it's made it impossible to get anything done. I think if you look back over, first, the two terms of the Bush administration and then, now, the Obama administration, it has been an extraordinarily active period in American government, sometimes on a partisan basis, sometimes on a bipartisan basis.
DOUTHATI was just jotting down on my notepad. I mean, in the Obama era, we've had a health care bill. We've had a financial reform bill. We had a massive stimulus package. Most of these passed along party lines, but they did get -- they did have to get 60 votes in the Senate. The Bush administration managed to pass two major tax cuts -- No Child Left Behind, invade two foreign countries with bipartisan support in both cases. So I think the -- and I could go on. So I think the question is what is it that we're missing that can be provided here? Is it just that we need better legislation, better decisions about which countries to invade?
REHMOr no political parties, Jon Cowan?
COWANSo the -- if you go out across the country, what you will find is there's a huge portion of Americans -- Democrats, Republicans, independents -- who say, I am sick of the hyper-partisanship. I'm sick of the name-calling. I'm sick of the labeling. I'm tired -- look, we're going to see a State of the Union in about a month. They're going to sit on separate sides of the aisles, stand up and applaud on the things they feel like standing up and applauding on, like children segregated into, like, separate boxes. Why don't they all sit together? That is emblematic of what Americans feel.
COWANWe took a poll after Third Way. We took a poll after this election. And you -- if you ask people, do you want your politicians to work together, find common ground, even if that means giving up on some of their principles? The answer is yes. So to your question, Ross, what No Labels is attempting to do is speak for the plurality of majority of Americans who say, we are going to have to, in the coming years and decades, be willing to actually lay aside some of the hyper-partisanship to get some very big and difficult things done.
REHMAnd, E.J. Dionne, this morning in The Wall Street Journal, there is a poll supporting the shift to the center among American people. And what we are seeing at work in the Congress today is Democrats angry because President Obama did just that, move toward Republicans on this tax issue.
DIONNERight. And I think that poll was very interesting because, if you look at it, Democrats are far more inclined in that survey to say, we want compromise, than Republicans are. There is an asymmetric quality to this desire for moderation, and I think Democrats are furious. Hey, they're mad at themselves because they should have dealt with this Bush tax cut much earlier, so they wouldn't have been in this box. And a lot of them, including me, think it's unconscionable to have me talking just two weeks ago about the deficit and then have this big giveaway to well-off people, particularly this estate tax cut. They're torn because there's some good stuff that Obama got into this.
DIONNEBut, I think, that's the problem with chasing the center. I'm all for moderation. I just don't like this cult of the center where you define the center as where these guys are. And these guys are conservatives moving ever far to the right, and where the center-left is -- which I think is closer to the center, so that it's odd that some of the same people who, two weeks ago, said we need bipartisan action to slash the deficit are now praising this deal, even though it increases the deficit by $900 billion.
DIONNEI just want to say one thing about parties. Mickey is right, that pressure for change comes from the edges. A good example we haven't talked about enough -- this is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's election this year. That's a fascinating case. Number one, Lincoln was a moderate on slavery. The South didn't see it and seceded, but I think looking -- looked at from perspective, he didn't want to abolish slavery right away. He was willing to let it remain, but that was too much of a threat from the South. So what is the center? It depends on where you...
REHMYou see it.
DIONNE...define it. He formed a -- he helped form a political party. We could abolish parties tomorrow. And, in about three years' time, we would form parties again because, what are parties? They are efforts of like-minded people to come together in coalition to influence politics.
EDWARDSWell, I mean, there's -- there are natural affinities, and people come together around those affinities. So, yes, people will come together in some party system. What the problem, E.J., is that we have allowed the parties to control who chairs committees, who sits on a committee, who gets to be on the general elections ballot.
REHMHow would you do it? How would you do it?
EDWARDSI would have open primaries, period...
EDWARDS...where everybody could run together, and all -- everybody could vote in it.
EDWARDSI would have nonpartisan redistricting commissions. And I would take away from party leadership the right to determine who sits on what committees and who could chair what committees.
REHMNow, would that be part, Jon Cowan, of the vision of No Labels?
COWANAbsolutely. Mickey articulates it really well, which is you also have to have a series -- I'll use a boring word -- but of process changes. In other words, things like open primaries have the possibility of making it so that instead of a candidate who is more extreme in one direction or the other actually represents a much larger plurality of voters. You can go through a whole list of changes, like Mickey recommended and others -- changing Gerrymandering and so on -- that would create a process that is much more conducive to people coming together as opposed to pulling apart.
COWANI want to say one thing about what two things Ross said. One of them is, yeah, a lot of things got done under Bush and under Obama. But they were highly polarized, and they became very, very, very extreme. And what a lot of Americans are seeing is...
DIONNEYou're saying Obama's program is extreme?
COWANNo. I'm saying it got highly polarized. Democrats, in many instances during the Bush years, went way over the top in the rhetoric about what Bush was doing. And Republicans have gone way over the top about what Obama is doing. And Americans are fundamentally sick of that. They're tired of it. And Ross raised the question, which is, well, people organize around an issue. Yes, that's true. The issue in this case -- and it happens to fit our moment -- is hyper-partisanship.
REHMOkay. And Ross wants to respond.
DOUTHATI don't think that people organize around hyper-partisanship. I mean, I wish No Labels all the best. But I think they will have difficulty, you know, attracting a successful, enduring grassroots movement on this basis. And I think -- I want to throw out the example of British politics. British politics has a third party that looks, in certain ways, a lot like what I think, fundamentally, the No Labels movement is, which is a kind of socially liberal, fiscally moderate centrism for upper-middle class urbanites who are a little bit uncomfortable with some of the sort of anti-free trade, you know, sort of labor blue collar aspects of the Democratic coalition.
DOUTHATThis party also pushes for electoral reform. They're its proportional representation rather than open primaries and so on. But I would just submit to the No Labels movement as a whole, that what they should consider doing is founding a third party.
EDWARDSYeah, I keep thinking about -- Gilbert and Sullivan really nailed this one when they talked about somebody who becomes an admiral by having served in parliament and always voting at his party's call and never thinking for himself at all. And we've seemed to have cherished that in our politics, and that's the problem. Because when I served in the House -- and it's still true today -- if you want to be, say, the chairman of a committee, your party is going to make sure that you don't get that position unless you are absolutely committed to fighting for the party line and to being very vigorous in opposition to the other party. And if you're willing to do some compromise, some kind of working with the other party, you're not going to get that chairmanship.
REHMWhat about that, E.J.?
DIONNEFirst of all, the -- again, I have to come back -- I'm sorry to be a broken record on this -- to the asymmetric quality of this. It really is quite different now in the Republican Party, even quiet conservative people. Mickey, years ago, got -- was a canary in the coal mine. He was a very conservative Republican, I think, by reasonable measures. He lost to somebody to his right who didn't think Mickey was conservative enough, and you have that happen in primary after primary in the Republican Party. The Republican electorate is well to the right of the average American.
DOUTHATWell, I have to then...
EDWARDSLet me just.
EDWARDSGo ahead Ross.
EDWARDSBut in the Democratic Party, you still have -- even after this election when they took it on the chin -- a very substantial body of Blue Dogs. You've got Jon who runs a very influential organization called Third Way that represents moderate Democrats, so this is just not symmetrical right now.
REHMAll right. Ross.
DOUTHATI would just make two quick points. One is that E.J. is right, that moderate Republicans are institutionally and organizationally weaker than moderate Democrats. So that asymmetry does exist. However, part of the shift to the right that he and many other liberals bemoan is a reflection of the fact that 30 or 40 years ago, the American political system was to the left of where the country as a whole was. If you compare sort of the breakdown of liberals and conservatives in Congress in the '60s and '70s to how Americans themselves identify themselves, this is a country where many more people identify as conservatives than liberals and center right than center left. So you would expect some such asymmetry to exist.
REHMRoss Douthat, he's a columnist for The New York Times. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Well, you're about to hear from people who have very -- a variety of ideas about what's happening in the country. Let's go first to Little Rock, Ark. Good morning, Billy. You're on the air.
BILLYGood morning. I wanted to say that I was delighted to hear that this organization has come about, the No Labels. I hear all these people saying, you know, that they're either extremely right, extremely left. That's true to a certain extent. But the guy that started the organization is right. We are sick and tired of what's going on in Washington. They cannot agree on anything, and we want them to get something done.
REHMAnd despite the argument that, in fact, we've gotten a lot done, that is a perception, that you've got these people in Washington doing nothing but arguing, arguing, arguing. And that's the problem of perception if not reality, E.J.
DIONNEThere are a lot of people in the country who are very unhappy for a very good reason. Our unemployment rate is close to 10 percent. There is a perception. I think a widespread perception I picked up in the campaign that Americans fear that we're losing our power and influence in the world. Americans would be a lot happier if these problems could get solved. That is to say if unemployment went down. And I think our whole discussion would be different if unemployment had dropped to 6 percent and if we had a sense that we were rising again, which I believe we will have eventually.
DIONNEBut when you say, get something done. Well, that begs the question, what is the something? And this goes back to Ross' point, which is -- look, if these guys want to say politics has gotten too mean and too nasty and that we don't have real debate, we have name calling, I'm all for them. But you still have to get down to what is the something you want done? And what is the something that might solve some of these problems we confront?
REHMWell, what about Jon Cowan's point of nonpartisan primaries? Gerrymandering, that's done in a different way. Chairmanships appointed in a different way. How do you respond?
DIONNEI'm all for nonpartisan reapportionment. I mean, right now, you have incumbents pick their districts as opposed to the districts picking the congressman. I'm ambivalent, honestly, about open and closed primaries. Maybe they would produce more moderate candidates. In some cases, there's also the possibility of mischief, but I don't have a strong opposition to that. I don't think any of these procedural reforms answer the underlying anxieties in the country.
DOUTHATSee -- but this is missing where Americans are at. And I think Billy expressed it well, which is, yes, things get done, and things will get done. But what Americans -- many Americans are consistently saying is, the tone in Washington, the attitude, the way that these things get done is turning us off from politics. So let's take a big issue. We all agree it's going to have to be tackled in the next few years, deficit reduction and entitlement reform. Well, the two sides typically stake out very far apart positions. The right stakes out one position. The left stakes out another position. Well, if we're actually going to solve deficits in any kind of a serious way, it's going to take the tone coming down, people being far less partisan about it and actually working to find common ground.
EDWARDSYeah, I have to disagree with E.J. on one thing. Process matters. Democracy is about process. It's about how you make your decisions. And part of -- you know, whether it's basketball, football or politics, the rules determine what happens. And we've created the system of rules where the party is so -- the primary thing that is of concern is whether or not your party is going to be able to win the next election. That's the thing -- that's the hold you've got to break, or none of this -- the things Jon wants to solve, that's not going to happen as long as you continue this partisan warfare.
REHMMickey Edwards, former congressman from Oklahoma, member of the House Republican leadership. We'll take a short break. More of your calls, comments when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Here in the studio, as we talk about No Labels, is Jon Cowan, he is one of the co-founders of No Labels, E.J. Dionne of The Brookings Institution and The Washington Post, Mickey Edwards, former congressman from Oklahoma, Ross Douthat, he is a columnist for The New York Times. We'll go back to the phones in a moment. But here's an e-mail from Lisa in Atlanta, Ga. who says, "How can this possibly be a movement? Where are the alleged grassroots of this movement? And what are they actually doing to further their cause? Seems more of a media ploy for the moderate politicians that launches this group. No one marches or protests for mediocrity." Jon.
COWANWow. Thank you, Lisa. So to be clear, we are starting a movement, launching a movement, beginning a movement, which we officially kicked off this week. The troops aren't there yet, Lisa. You're right, and, in fact, if you or friends or yours would like to join the movement, go to nolabels.org and join it. Here's the key. We are going to try to recruit a million Americans who have this sentiment. If you look at the polls, what they'll consistently tell you -- many of your friends and family members will say this, Lisa -- I am sick of the partisanship. I'd like people to work together.
COWANWe're going to find out if some small percentage of the tens of millions of Americans who have that sentiment actually will join a movement, build a grassroots army and actually start pressuring their politicians who they think -- I worked -- I was in the Clinton administration at a senior level, and I worked in Congress. And I can tell you this. When you go to do something and work across party lines, any time you go to work across party lines, you get punished by the people in your party, by the people in your grassroots. We are trying to change that dynamic, so you'll get rewarded for working across party lines, not punished.
REHMAnd here's an extreme of working across party lines from Anne in San Antonio who says, "Here in Texas, two state representatives who were elected as Democrats have just switched their designation to Republican. How can we ever think our elected representatives really represent the voters?" Mickey Edwards.
EDWARDSWell, I -- you know, I think there is a problem when people change parties in order to get on the winning side. Because the way our legislative systems are set up, whichever party has the majority has all the control, and whichever party is in the minority has very little. But I want to do say one thing where I have bit of a concern about what No Labels is talking about, and that is the idea of pressuring people -- John just said this and I've seen it in their other materials -- pressuring people who they do not consider to be in the center, who they consider to be too left or too right, which sounds like -- not like No Labels, but like we're coming up with what we think is the proper position, and we're going to criticize anybody who isn't there. And that sounds contradictory.
COWANYeah, I don't -- that's not what we're after, Mickey. What we're after is...
REHMBut why is the word there?
COWANBecause that's how politics work -- is you actually create pressure. We're not saying if you have a good idea and you're on the left, if you have a good idea and you're on the right, we're not saying give up your idea. What we're saying is, the way things get done, particularly on difficult issues, is the left and the right don't have a lock on the best ideas in this country. You actually have to be willing to come together. I mean, look, Mickey was in Congress. I've talked to dozens and dozens of members of Congress, current and former. What they'll tell you is if I work across the aisle too much, if I try to get something done in an unpartisan way, I get punished for it. The phone calls that come to my office, the e-mails that come to my office say, don't work with so and so.
COWANWe'll go back to a recent example on health care. The left became obsessed with this thing called the public option, even though much of what the health care bill did was exactly what the left had been abdicating for for decades. The right decided they would demonize health care even though, as E.J. said, much of actually what happened was we took the free market system, kept it in place and reformed it in ways that made it better. What Americans said -- are saying is, look, if you solved the big problem like health care, took a big step towards it, end the partisanship around it, agree that you've done something good and actually stand behind it.
DIONNELook, the left wanted a public option. I still think we may get it someday. They lost the public option. Guess what? They all fought like crazy for the bill that didn't have the public option. And the right didn't move when the public option was taken out of the bill. They stayed in opposition. The left fought for this health care bill. And that's part of this asymmetric thing. But, you know, let's say Jon gets his million folks or more. And, again, I do like the idea of changing the tone of the argument. But how do you balance the budget? He raised that issue. That's a big issue. How are we going to get this under control?
DIONNEDo you split it 50 percent budget cuts and 50 percent tax increases? Do you do it 75/25, one way or the other? These are substantive disagreements. They will have particular disagreements over which programs you change. As soon as you get down to specifics, people will start having arguments and disagreements.
DIONNEAnd you may end up with two or three parties inside No Labels, and they won't label themselves. But they'll be there, and -- now, there's nothing wrong with this. We -- I would like it in a more civil way, but we're going to have splits about what we should do.
REHMAll right. We're going to go back to the phones. To Oklahoma City. Good morning, James. You're on the air.
JAMESGood morning, Diane.
JAMESHi. Well, first, I wanted to say I'm a first-time caller, longtime listener. I love the show.
REHMThank you. I'm glad.
JAMESI want to second the notion that you would be a lovely, lovely savior in Congress.
EDWARDSWe'd all vote for her, James.
COWAN"The Diane Rehm Show" movement starts here.
JAMESThere you go. There you go. This is my last week as the opinion editor of Oklahoma State University. I started writing about politics two years ago during the presidential election. And I actually want to second E.J.'s point. What I've noticed is that this is a false equivocation to suggest that the left is this radical left. My goodness, the public option is not socialized medicine. It's not the single payers. It wasn't even brought up. The same is true with what Obama said last week with the tax cuts. A true left disposition -- I would imagine -- would have been something that said, you know, we can't afford tax cuts for anyone.
JAMES"But we compromise," in quotations, "and gave them to the wealthiest Americans during the Great Recession." And that's not compromise. That's insanity. So I'm not sure. I'm really worried as we start talking about deficits and deficit reduction coming up, that instead of closing tax loopholes for rich people who have been hiding their accounts over in one building over on some island, we're going to cut senior's pay. We're going to cut all kinds of stuff for these people. And this is a false conversation that we've been having for the last however many years. So I think No Label is kind of missing the point. Yes. Meanness is awful, but so is an unreality.
COWANWell, meanness is awful, that's true. Look, the -- nobody's saying the right and the left are exactly equivalent. I'm -- you know, people on the right hold their beliefs strongly. People on the lefts do. But there is no question that the historic basis of this country was people with -- from factions with deeply held point of views coming together. I mean, you don't have a constitution unless people who had very different points of view found ways to reconcile those points of view without sounding like sellouts but found common ground. The constitution is the ultimate No Labels compromised document.
DOUTHATUnless you happen to be one of the anti-federalists...
DIONNEI was just going to say that.
DOUTHAT...who were demonized up and down the 13 colonies for their opposition to the Constitution, and, you know, from there, we went straight into the 1790s and the first party system where, you know, Thomas Jefferson was accused of being an atheist French tyrant and John Adams was accused of even worse things and so on. And, I mean, again, I think we can all agree here that partisanship -- I wrote a column about this three weeks ago -- there's sort of a -- there is a partisan mentality that can be destructive of intellectual seriousness, policy seriousness, all the rest of it. It's a big problem.
REHMYou acknowledge that?
DOUTHATI acknowledge that.
DIONNEYeah, me, too. We also...
COWANBut that's a big -- but that's a big thing to acknowledge.
DOUTHATThat's a big...
COWANThen how do you actually make your column come to life in politics so that instead of the -- they saying it in a column -- and I love your column...
DOUTHATWell, let me...
COWAN...instead of saying the column, it actually becomes political reality.
DOUTHATWell, all right, so let me give you an example. So this week, I wrote my column about Tom Coburn, Republican from Oklahoma...
DOUTHATTom Coburn of Oklahoma is a very conservative Republican. Tom Coburn is, you know, more pro-life than the Pope. No, I don't know. But something like that, let's say. And he's never met an earmark he wanted to vote for and so on. But at the same time, over the past couple of years, Tom Coburn has been a more serious policy thinker, I'd say, than a lot of people on either the left or the right. He was behind the only, I think, serious conservative alternative to the Democratic health care bill.
DOUTHATHe was a big player on the fiscal commission. You know, if we all agree the deficit is a problem, Tom Coburn was there casting a difficult vote to forward its recommendations to Congress. He's -- and he has actually crossed party lines on a couple occasions to vote for things. But the -- my -- but the point I was making in the column is that all of this comes out of the fact that Tom Coburn is a -- it's precisely because he is so ideological, because he has these deeply held beliefs that sometimes lead him to, you know, attack liberals in -- in what we would consider, you know, overly partisan terms, also leads him to, at times, do really good things on policy.
DOUTHATAnd I think you see that. Ted Kennedy, one of the most liberal Democrats in the Senate, was also one of the most successful legislators because he had such strong convictions. He always knew what he was doing, where he could compromise and where he couldn't. And I think that that is what makes American politics work. It's people with strong convictions who can then compromise from them. But you start with the convictions, and that is what I think is missing.
EDWARDSYou know, I think we need to define a couple of terms here. We will always have factions. James Madison knew we would have factions. And we all have ideologies. We will have people who have strong political principles. But there's a difference because the factions that we had when the country was born were shifting factions. People might come together on two or three issues, where they were all in agreement about the battles between Britain and France and so forth, or tariffs and non-tariffs.
EDWARDSBut the party problem here that breeds what all of us, I think, are concerned about is the fact that you, on issue after issue after issue after issue, whether it is stimulus or TARP or health care or Sotomayor or Kagan, whatever it is, you know, the Democrats, for the most part, are on one side, Republicans, for the most part, on the other side. You know, it doesn't make sense that you would just automatically all come together on issue after issue unless it was the well being of your party that it mattered more than anything else to you.
REHMAnd that is your concern...
EDWARDSThat is my concern.
REHM...that the well-being of the American people is second to the well being of the political party?
EDWARDSCan I give you one quick example? One quick example. I was elected to Congress as a Republican in a district that had not elected Republicans since 1928. My district was 74 percent Democrat. That so bothered the Democrats in those state legislature that they re-districted me. Diane, I'm a city dude. I represented Oklahoma City. And by time they got through doing that, I was representing wheat farmers, cattle ranchers who deserved somebody who really understood their issues. But they didn't get it because the party consideration trumped everything else.
DIONNECould I say that, in part, Diane, this is -- in so many ways, I agree with what Ross said paradoxically, and I think there's a reason for that. What we're talking about here is style and substance. And if you're talking about style, one of my favorite lines comes from a philosopher called Glenn Tinder who said, we need to create an attentive society that leaves room for strong convictions but encourages us all to both give and receive help on the road to truth. And that means that you have real arguments. I like arguing with Ross because it's not a cheap argument. You will make admissions against interest, and he'll say, this is why I'm here. We have a lot of phony arguments in our politics that are rooted...
REHMSuch as death panels, for example.
DIONNEYes. For example -- it's a good example -- and they aren't really designed to get us anywhere. And nobody is willing to take risks when they argue with each other. That's style. But on substance, again, I would just underscore this asymmetry that I keep coming back to 'cause I think it's so important. And I also think that the division of us into parties is natural. Factions become parties 'cause people build coalitions, and that's how Democracies organize themselves.
REHME.J. Dionne. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And, finally, to Cleveland, Ohio. Good morning Michael, you're on the air.
MICHAELI think that the -- finding the objective solutions to the problems that face America, like health care and the budget deficit, education, yada, yada, yada, are -- it would be awesome to able to achieve that. And even though they're a problem and we've seen that there are no easy solutions, we all know that there really are solutions if we put our minds to it. So I'd like to see, and I wonder if the founders of the organization see No Labels -- excuse -- serving as a sort of lobbying effort for mainstream America, you know, versus lobbying efforts from special interest groups. And I would hope that lobbying effort could be based on substantiated facts.
COWANMichael. I think that is incredibly well said, that No Labels is trying to build a movement of Americans. It sounds like yourself who may cling very tightly to their party identification, and that is fine. You do not need to give that up, but want to encourage politicians to make decisions that are not just about their party. Actually, I agree very strongly with Ross, which is you don't need -- I applauded Tom Coburn for his stands on the deficit commission as I did Dick Durbin.
COWANThey both are partisans with deeply held ideological convictions that are principled. That is a good thing that -- we're not asking to give that up, but Coburn and Durbin have to be applauded for sticking aside their party label on the deficit commission and coming together to support something that is very difficult for both of them politically, but is very good for the country. That is in the spirit of No Labels.
REHMWhere will your money come from? How will you use it?
COWANThe money is going to have to come from the grassroots. Americans who want to be of No Labels, who want to sign up and support it like any other grassroots movement in the country, that's where it's got to come from. And it's going to be used at the state and local level to build chapters in all 435 congressional districts to try to carry the spirit of holding to your convictions, but setting aside your labels to actually try to do what's best for the country.
REHMHow realistic do you think this movement is, Mickey Edwards?
EDWARDSWell, you know, there are a lot of things like this going on. There's another one that is trying to create an online voting system. I mean, there are a lot of people who are trying to do this. I think -- I don't know whether No Labels, as John presents it, will be a great success. But I think the fact that there's so many people who are now, you know, raising their voices against this hyper-partisanship has got to be a good thing.
REHMMickey Edwards, former Congressman from Oklahoma. John Cowan, co-founder of New Labels -- No Labels and president and co-founder of Third Way. E.J Dionne, Washington Post columnist, also senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. And Ross Douthat, columnist for the Washington -- for The New York Times. I'm so confused here this morning.
DIONNELabels don't matter.
REHMThanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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