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Head Strong: A crusade for civil, more productive politics

It's taken me 48 years, but tomorrow I am attending my first political protest. I'm getting off easy. I'll be indoors at Columbia University, so I won't have to brave the winter elements. I intend to carry a Kindle instead of a painted sign. And I don't anticipate getting locked up unless my car gets booted by the NYPD.

It's taken me 48 years, but tomorrow I am attending my first political protest.

I'm getting off easy. I'll be indoors at Columbia University, so I won't have to brave the winter elements. I intend to carry a Kindle instead of a painted sign. And I don't anticipate getting locked up unless my car gets booted by the NYPD.

But that doesn't mean I'm leaving my passion at home. I'm going because I want to lend support to a movement that proclaims, "Ideological extremism and political litmus tests are toxic and destructive to creating a space where the best ideas can be found and enacted."

The group is called No Labels. And although its goal of instilling civility in politics may sound naive, it is an organization created by experienced political hands: Mark McKinnon, a Republican who has counseled George W. Bush, and Nancy Jacobson, a Democratic fund-raiser who has labored for the likes of U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh.

"Whenever any of our political officeholders reach across the aisle and try to work with one another, they get punished," McKinnon told me in an interview. "They get punished by either the professional organizations on the left or the professional organizations on the right. Or the media on the left or right. There's nothing out there that is a reward system for good behavior."

More than 1,000 participants are expected to witness this launch, having traveled from all 50 states to unite behind a declaration that says in part: "We believe hyperpartisanship is destroying our politics and paralyzing our ability to govern. We may disagree on issues, but we do so with civility and mutual respect."

I'm scheduled to moderate a morning session featuring U.S. Sens. Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.), and Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.); Democratic Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles; U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis (R., S.C.); and former GOP congressman Tom Davis of Virginia. Later in the day, independents such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, and Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware are expected.

On Friday, Crist told me that the arguing, cross-talk, and incivility overwhelming cable TV is "counterproductive" for the future of the country. Americans, he insisted, aren't "so concerned about the ideological divide as they are about progress being made for our country."

He continued: "We're at a tough time, and I think most people clearly recognize that. And I think they understand that the way to try to move forward and lean forward is if we take an approach that says, 'Look, let's do what's common sense. Let's do what we all believe is right. Let's accomplish those things, and then we can improve the state of affairs in our country and our economy.' "

No wonder there is concern from those who may feel their stranglehold on our split-screen world is threatened. Columnist Jonah Goldberg got started last week when he wrote in USA Today: "When they claim we need to put aside labels to do what's right, what they are really saying is, you need to put aside what you believe in and do what they say."

Not so, say the organizers of No Labels with whom I have spoken. Rather, the nonpartisan group is a frontal assault on the canard that compromise equals weakness.

"No Labels isn't saying you have to compromise on everything. People have strongly held beliefs, and they should hold to their beliefs. But we are saying that if we want to make progress for our country, if we want to solve the big problems facing us, we're going to have to find common ground," cofounder Jonathan Cowan told me.

"Look at the Constitution itself and the Constitutional Convention. . . . There's a lot of common ground. There [are] a lot of compromises. . . . That's the lifeblood of a democracy."

To be successful, No Labels will need to reshape not only elected officials' behavior, but also the conduct of those who provide their talking points.

Political incivility in this country has reached a tipping point. The level of disrespect exhibited toward George W. Bush was appalling. But the climate has gotten even more poisoned during the Obama administration. Last week, Mayor Bloomberg attributed this climate, in part, to when "bloggers and partisan pundits feed a 24-hour news cycle that values conflict over consensus and rewards people at the extremes who scream the loudest."

He's right. Lost in the contemporary cross fire of racist, socialist, die quickly, and enemies are any views that occupy the middle ground, especially ones offered with a degree of civility. The faux debate has replaced critical thinking with mere criticism. Ironically, while centrists are dismissed as unprincipled, it is the extremes whose viewpoints often have no logical connection.

Consider: There are political perspectives at both ends that are logically connected. For those who believe in the power of private enterprise, for instance, it makes sense to also want limits on the size and scope of government. Meanwhile, others who feel strongly about creating a safety net would likely also support the extension of unemployment benefits.

However, not all the viewpoints that today fall under the headings of conservative and liberal are linked. Yet we bundle them because we're a labeling society.

Advocating for lower taxes, for example, has nothing to do with supporting gun rights or opposing abortion. Yet the right-of-center public figure who doesn't consent to all three is disparaged as a RINO (Republican in name only). Similarly, there's a feeble link among limiting gun ownership, supporting a progressive tax structure, and federal funding of stem-cell research. But to be considered an authentic liberal, that's the gauntlet you're expected to run.

If you don't fit snugly under one of these labels, your opinion is overlooked or dismissed. After all, that's the way we've become conditioned by cable TV and talk radio. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Candidates take their cues from pundits and then act like them when they get to state capitals or to Washington.

Hopefully, that begins to change tomorrow.