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No Labels offers a home for those fed up with partisanship

The real solutions to our most pressing problems will require bipartisan dialogue.

My wife, Sally, and I spent a recent Saturday afternoon at an organizing meeting of what may become the Maine Chapter of No Labels, a newly formed national organization whose purpose is to promote bipartisan dialogue.

That dialogue will cover such topics as the federal deficit, energy, immigration and a score of other pressing national issues that the two political parties seem congenitally unable to address, let alone resolve.

The premise of No Labels (www.nolablels.org) is a simple one – that the country's most difficult issues can only be effectively addressed through bipartisan solutions.

Because Democrats and Republicans have largely been taken over by the extremes of their respective parties, partisan attempts at solutions tend to be at the extremes of the left and right, respectively.

This creates a chasm between the partisan proposals, a chasm that is frequently unbridgeable.

Think of the current gap between the recently proposed deficit reduction plans of the president and those of House Republicans, led by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan.

Think also of the president's health care reform bill that passed with no Republican support and is now the target of unremitting rollback attempts by Republicans.

No Labels was formed because the group's founders believed that we Americans not on the extreme wings of either party were by now so fed up with current political discourse, and so concerned about the fate of the country, that we would come out on a Saturday afternoon to consider their alternative. They were right.

An enthusiastic group of about 100 answered the No Labels call for their first-ever state organizing meeting.

They picked Maine as their first state because we have a strong tradition of sending moderates to Washington and, more recently, independents to Augusta.

Eliot Cutler, the latest independent we almost sent to Augusta, was on hand to lend his support to the effort and to discuss his newly forming organization, One Maine, which will apparently act as something of a No Labels Maine affiliate.

The atmosphere at the session was not quite on the level of the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia – although there was a Ben Franklin figure who provided something of the "wisdom of the age" flavor.

Mostly the meeting was devoted to better understanding No Labels and its approach.

The organization will focus on promoting candidates who demonstrate a commitment to working across the aisle on major policy issues.

No Labels will only endorse candidates in primaries as a way of being able to promote moderates of both parties while preserving a nonpartisan approach.

No Labels will also propose changes to the electoral system to give moderates more opportunity, such as open primaries or single primary approaches like the one recently adopted in Washington state.

I got the sense that much of the detail on how the organization will function is still being worked out. Certainly, the national staff encouraged those of us in Maine to shape our own approach under the No Labels umbrella.

I left feeling there is potential here. Indeed, No Labels presented polling data confirming what I have long believed – that the extremes of each party count for no more than 15 percent to 20 percent of membership, meaning that those of us in the "moderate caucus" are the majority – the majority! Why does it not feel that way?

Perhaps because we moderates are not passionate enough in our beliefs. Indeed, can one be passionate in the cause of the bipartisan solution? There's the rub.

No Labels has just the right idea about what is killing America – extreme partisanship. However, whether they can mobilize sufficient numbers and sufficient funding and sufficient will to make a difference is a big if.

I remember the passion around the founding of another moderate initiative, Common Cause, 41 years ago. Common Cause is still with us, but is not much of a force these days. Looking back, it's not clear that Common Cause has had a significant impact on national political dialogue.

The elephant in the room of American politics is the number of Americans who simply can't be bothered. They are uninformed and, to the degree they pay attention at all, are easily swayed by the latest political ad. They mean to do better, but they simply can't muster the will to do so. Yet, many vote.

Can No Labels make a difference with this group? This will be the real test, and I am not sure the message, as crucial as it is, is powerful enough to penetrate the fog of American indifference.

Where is Tom Paine when we really need him?