No Labels. No Agenda. Some Hope

Why, in one centrist group, Republicans and Democrats are talking to each other

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

For those of us who consider ourselves political moderates, life is a dispiriting slog, a sorry mix of rectitude and ineptitude. We simmer with anticipation each time a new bipartisan initiative or Gang (of Six, of ... anything) is offered--and we are inevitably disappointed. The results are either too pedestrian, in a Solomonic slice-the-baby way, or far too ambitious. Abolish the Electoral College! Grant public funding for election campaigns! Start a third party! In 2012 there was a megafoolish, if well-funded, effort by a group called Americans Elect to raise an independent Cincinnatus to run for President via an Internet draft. It flopped, spectacularly. Oh, there are worthy think tanks with names like the Bipartisan Policy Center and Third Way. And there is the memory of a centrist research group, the Progressive Policy Institute, that provided Bill Clinton with many of his best proposals in 1992. But we moderates generally suffer from too much righteousness, too little populist grit and too many compound sentences.

I am, however, slightly optimistic again. On Jan. 10 I witnessed a public act of humility by 24 members of Congress, equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. The event was sponsored by a centrist group called No Labels. It was revolutionary not only in its humility but also in its agenda. There was no agenda. They simply agreed to start talking to one another. "I've been a member of the Senate for 1½ years, and I've never been asked to attend a bipartisan meeting," said West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, who chairs the group with former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, a Republican. Furthermore, Manchin added, if you are caught seeking such meetings by your party leaders, you are accused of "guilt by conversation."

One of the Republican Congressmen told me a similar story: He was attending a meeting of the House Republican caucus. One member stood up and suggested that they reach out to reasonable Democrats to see if there were any areas of commonality on entitlement reform. He was immediately shot down by John Boehner, who said, "It can't work. It'll never work." (As if there's so much that is working.) I spoke to a dozen of the elected Problem Solvers, as they call themselves, and each made the same point: the only bipartisan events they attended were chance one-on-one meetings in the darkened hallways of the Longworth Office Building. "Our colleagues think," this Congressman added, "that we live on a knife's edge of idealism and naiveté."

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