This One Doesn’t Go to 11: No Labels’ Quiet Launch

Sarah Laskow | December 14th, 2010

There’s a sound you hear when political ideas take off. It’s a crescendo of applause that swells and lasts so long that the speaker has to quiet it down. It comes exactly at the lines in a speech that are intended to inspire, and sometimes at lines that weren’t.

That sound was absent yesterday at the launch of No Labels, the organization that advocates something like bipartisanship and that may or may not be building a base for Michael Bloomberg’s 2012 presidential run. The applause, when it came, was perfunctory, and often a beat late.

“I feel I need to do a Howard Dean yell to wake you all up,” Newark Mayor Cory Booker said to the audience, just after 2:30 in the afternoon.

Twenty minutes or so later, Rob McCord, Pennsylvania’s state treasurer, repeated Booker’s request to bring up the lights in the audience. “Maybe it’ll get people’s blood sugar up,” he said.

The idea behind No Labels is that politicians need to put country before party. In practice, that means they want more politicians to solicit cosponsors from opposing parties for legislation, to “use civil and respectful language,” and to vote against their party more often.

The organization claims not to be centrist and offers some information about issues like energy, election reform, and national security on its website. It does have at least one label: It’s organized under the 501(c)(4) section of the tax code, which means it’s an issue advocacy organization. (This is the same type of organization that attracted criticism this past election cycle for pumping money into electoral races without disclosing the source of the funding.) No Labels has been a little vague on what issues it will actually be advocating for, besides bipartisanship.

The problem is, good ideas aren’t necessarily the ones that everyone agrees on. Nor does a bipartisan piece of legislation necessarily contain agreed-upon ideas. Take the tax bill currently on tap in DC. It’s a bipartisan piece of legislation that cobbles together some ideas that Democrats like and some ideas that Republicans like — not a coherent set of policy provisions that everyone agrees are good.

The leaders of No Labels said yesterday they wanted to build a movement 1 million strong in the next year. If the level of enthusiasm at the launch event was any indication, it’ll be a tough slog.

If they do manage that feat, however, there is one politician who will be very interested: Mayor Bloomberg. No Labels’ campaign for members will serve, in a way, as a proof of concept for a Bloomberg for President campaign. I don’t think of Bloomberg supporters as the type of people willing to travel to Iowa, Ohio, and New Hampshire to spend hours door-knocking in the cold. I imagine that, like the No Labels audience, they’ll lose their enthusiasm around lunch time.

But if over time No Labels can gin up real support, so can Bloomberg. If the group actually gains momentum, if the applause at No Labels chapter meetings across the country starts reaching the fever pitch, the mayor could start being a little more forthcoming about his plans for the future.