New politics won’t come easy, but come it must

Star Tribune

December 7, 2013

How do Americans think the long-running Gridlock Show in Washington will end?

Some of the possibilities are frightening. Demagogues, rioters, revolutionaries — history teaches that persistent government dysfunction brings that lot to the fore, with undesirable results.

Continuing to kick the can down the road on the national debt, climate change, deteriorating infrastructure, the education achievement gap, pension underfunding, rising student debt, et al., doesn’t seem like a good option, either. At some point, the nation will discover that the road that can is bumping along leads to national decline.

The possibility worth wishing for is that Americans will figure out how to make better use of the control levers they constitutionally hold, and steer the ship of state into motion. America’s alienated apoliticos, disgusted pragmatists and people-without-a-party moderates will find each other and turn themselves into a political force potent enough to compel politicians to compromise.

The odds are very long against such a groundswell developing, let alone being effective. Campaign finance and redistricting laws are stacked high against it. That was the tough talk I tossed last week at a contingent of Minnesotans involved in No Labels, a three-year-old national, bipartisan citizens movement that its website says is “dedicated to promoting a new politics of problem solving.”

They countered with a challenge that shushed my cynicism: “If not this, what?”

What indeed? Won’t pressure best come from the grass roots, with social media and e-networking connecting people who are willing to do more than grouse about unyielding partisanship? Won’t it most plausibly come from outside the political parties, but ideally still be respectful enough of the two-party system to seek to perfect it, not overthrow it?

That’s No Labels’ approach. It arose in 2010 in response to Obamacare — not the policy so much as the fact that it was launched without a single GOP vote in its favor. That’s not the way that major policies should be set in a two-party country, No Labels argued. (Agreed, I said. But chances are good that if Democrats had delayed reform until they could round up GOP votes, they’d still be waiting.)

If something like No Labels is to take hold, won’t it have to catch on early in a state like Minnesota?

I don’t think you could keep the likes of Paul Ostrow, Terri Bonoff, Laurence Reszetar and Mike Malone away. Ostrow is a former Minneapolis City Council president whose tether to the DFL Party has frayed since he left office in 2009. Terri Bonoff is a DFL state senator from Minnetonka who last used “DFL” on her campaign lawn signs in 2005. Reszetar is a Minneapolis attorney; Malone an IT engineer for Target Corp. Both are unaffiliated with a party but loaded with interest in politics.

They were the delegation that filled me in on No Labels’ activity. With no staff, no titled leader and no issue agenda other than “make government work again,” No Labels claims 2,000 devotees in this state, they said. Two of them are DFLers in Washington, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan. If Washington’s next attempt to balance the federal budget is no more successful than the last one, they expect their roster to grow.

Maybe so. But asking people who don’t like politics to get involved in a political organization isn’t an easy sell. The post-Jesse Ventura trend line on Minnesota’s Reform-cum-Independence Party, which has trod much the same ground, runs downhill.

My No Labels visitors came seeking attention. When an editorial writer obliges, a rasher of advice is served on the side. Here it is: You won’t change politics by scolding politicians. You can only change it by becoming a political force politicians can’t ignore. And you can only do that if you lure citizens with an agenda more specific and relevant to their lives than “make government work again.” No Labels should select a few issues (last week’s Twin Cities rush hours brought transportation funding to mind) and stake out creative positions that illustrate what a functional two-party government might do.

Will you endorse candidates in the 2014 Minnesota election? I asked. We haven’t decided, the No Labels folks replied.

My counsel: You won’t be taken seriously if you don’t.


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