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New ‘No Labels’ Centrist Group Seeks Culture Change in Politics

December 13, 2010 at 5:07 PM EDT
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In light of the polarization in Washington, a new group has formed to try to foster cooperation in Congress and tone down partisan rhetoric on both sides. Judy Woodruff speaks with No Labels founders Mark McKinnon, a GOP strategist and former adviser to George W. Bush, and Kiki McLean, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: A new political organization tries to tone down the partisan rhetoric on both sides of the aisle.

Judy Woodruff has that story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republicans, Democrats, and independents with a common goal, to make politics less polarized, are joining forces to create a centrist group called No Labels. The group bills itself as a new way of looking at politics. The national grassroots coalition plans to pressure the newly elected Congress to work across party lines.

And we are joined now by two of the group’s founders, Mark McKinnon — he’s a Republican strategist and former adviser to President George W. Bush — and Democratic consultant Kiki McLean. She served as senior adviser to Hillary Clinton in her 2008 presidential campaign.

It’s good to have you both with us.

KIKI MCLEAN, Democratic strategist: Thanks, Judy.

MARK MCKINNON, former media adviser to President George W. Bush: Thanks for having us on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kiki McLean, to you first. I could ask you, either one.

But, Kiki, I will start with you. Both of you have been so deeply involved in politics at opposite ends of the spectrum. Why are you doing this?

KIKI MCLEAN: Well, I’m doing this for a lot of reasons.

I want to make my party stronger, but I also believe that it’s my job in my role as a mother to a 6- and an 8-year-old that I can see their future. And I know that that future has to be about solving problems. We can’t just flip — keep flipping elected officials around every two years, hoping it will get better, when we really need a culture change, where we say to people, no, when you do the right thing, when you work for progress across the aisle, we’re going to stand behind you, as opposed to punishing them when they reach out across the aisle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark McKinnon, what’s the dream scenario here? What would you like to have happen?

MARK MCKINNON: We’d like to provide a vehicle and a channel for the millions of Americans who today don’t feel like their voices are represented.

They look at Washington, they see the hyper-partisanship, they see loud microphones on the left, loud microphones on the right, and nobody really rewarding good behavior in the middle. People are just — in fact, they’re getting punished whenever they try and extend their arm across the aisle or work in a bipartisan fashion.

And, yet, that’s what most of America wants. So, as we face some of the greatest challenges we have ever had, Washington is virtually paralyzed because neither side is willing to work with the other side in order to make any progress.

And you mentioned this is a new way of looking at politics. It’s actually a very old way of looking at politics. This is going back to Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, where, you know, people had clear differences, but they were willing to work with each other, meet with one another.

And today, in Washington, they literally do not even meet together. They don’t have caucus lunches together anymore. And it’s just a lot easier to demonize each other when that happens.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Kiki McLean, you also hear people saying, what’s wrong with feeling strongly, feeling passionately about issues? There’s a lot at stake. Why shouldn’t we be arguing these things, debating these things out vigorously?

KIKI MCLEAN: Passion and partisanship is OK. Hyper-partisanship is not.

If the goal when you start a conversation is to make sure somebody else loses, we all lose. And there’s too much of that going on today. Look, working together doesn’t mean that there won’t be days that Mark and I don’t draw the line in the sand between one another and have just a real fundamental difference.

But there are plenty of things that Mark and I know that we can talk about together. And one thing we know is that, right now, the conversation usually begins on the far outskirts of both parties, on the far ends of the political spectrum. You know what?

It’s really hard — a hard way to find a way to work together in that middle, where you can begin to move forward, if that’s where it begins. One of the things No Labels is going to do is give like-minded people a place to gather, so that we can be a voice that can be heard together.

I want to make sure and I think all the people that were here in New York with us today, 1,100 of them, from all over the country want to make sure that our leaders, whether it’s congressionally, in a governor’s mansion, at a city council, know that, when you do the right thing, when you pick solutions over your own political future, we’re going to be behind you, that millions of Americans will be there for you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark McKinnon, I heard you say today that the rest of the country is not as polarized as Washington.

And, yet, I will tell you, quite candidly, I was around the country covering several Senate races this year. This is anecdotal, but I found people pretty partisan in their views. That’s an anecdote, but look at the polls.

There was a new Pew poll that came out just a day or so ago that says, what is it, 43 percent of Democrats think the president shouldn’t compromise with Republicans. Sixty-some percent of Republicans don’t think Republicans should compromise.

So, why do you think the public wants the two to work together?

MARK MCKINNON: Well, Judy, I just saw a poll that said that 67 percent of Americans endorse the entire package when they look at the package in total.

And I think this is a great example where you have got people on both sides complaining about the final product. But that’s what presidential leadership is all about. It’s about forging consensus and compromise. And that never makes everybody happy.

But, you know, I looked out at America, and, sure, there was some partisanship in the primaries, but the fact is that most Americans would like to see a voice for the middle that represents their point of view, because they don’t feel like they’re being represented.

And they are passionate, too, Judy. Make no mistake about it. There are radical centrists out there, and there’s a lot of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kiki McLean, we noticed — we looked at who was involved today…

KIKI MCLEAN: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … Democrats, independents, former elected Republicans, no current Republicans.

What does that say?

KIKI MCLEAN: Well, I think it says that we had a good mix of folks there today. We had folks with a lot of points of view. We had a room with 1,100 people that also had a lot of lot from across the political spectrum and around the country.

I think it says that this is a starting point for a conversation. Today was a launch, a kickoff. And we look forward to seeing it grow as word spreads across the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark McKinnon, you are a Republican. What about that?

MARK MCKINNON: Listen, we had some great Republicans there, David Gergen, David Brooks, Tom Davis, Abel Maldonado, lots of folks who are interested in making sure that we get a — you know, that we work together.

And these are people who have been part of the process, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Evan Bayh is an outgoing member. We had Joe Manchin, who is an incoming member — lots of reflections on what works and what doesn’t.

But I don’t think there’s anybody that disagrees that it’s more hyper-partisan and more poisonous than it’s ever been. And that’s got some real long-term consequences. And that’s not the best way to move forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You say, Kiki McLean, in January, you’re going to start policing members of Congress if they don’t work together.

Are you going to feel pressure to criticize on both sides of the spectrum? Are you — if one side ends up being more partisan than the other, are you going to call it like you see it?

KIKI MCLEAN: Well, this isn’t about a tally count. And it’s not just negative reinforcement. This is about positive reinforcement.

You know, the current Culture, Judy is that we beat up on people all the time. We also want to stand up when people do the right thing. Mark and I just blogged last week with our colleague John Avlon, an independent, praising Senator Coburn, who said generous things and refused to take the bait and criticize President Obama, when the real conversation needed to be about issues.

We will continue to do that as well. But there’s no tally count going on here. This is really about what is best for the American people and what kind of positive actions our leaders are going to take.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark McKinnon, the other question, I know, on a lot of people’s minds is, people have tried to do things like this in the past.

How do you keep the passion going for what you’re doing in the center? People generally get worked up on one side of an issue or another. But how do you keep people excited about the good old modest middle, if you will?

MARK MCKINNON: Well, I like to call it radical centrist. I don’t think there’s anything moderate about most of the people in the middle today. They’re very, very passionate.

And you’re right, though. I mean, these are issues that I have worked on for years. And I have been involved in other similar kinds of efforts. But I will tell you, it is substantially different today than it’s ever been, and not just because I say that, but because we have gone across the country — and I have been looking at this for years — and there is more mobilization, more activity, more energy.

The Tea Party was one piece of that. It showed the energy that’s out there in America, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg, because there’s a lot of other people, millions of Americans — I would argue that research shows, and anecdotally, that it’s a majority of Americans — feel like their voice is not being represented, and they don’t like the hyper-partisanship.

They want to see our parties work together to address the intractable problems that we’re facing right now. And they don’t like the paralysis that the partisanship creates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we plan to check back in to see how it’s going. Mark McKinnon, Kiki McLean, thank you both.

MARK MCKINNON: We will give you a report.

KIKI MCLEAN: Thanks, Judy.

MARK MCKINNON: Thanks for having us on, Judy.