The inaugural meeting of a group that calls itself "No Labels" drew lawmakers from across the country, including Republican-turned-independent New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York; and Democratic Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
In an auspicious sign for the fledgling movement, however, the Columbia University gathering also attracted several GOP-aligned officials who were defeated in last month's midterm elections: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican who lost an independent bid for governor; Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, whose Senate bid was derailed in the Republican primary by tea party candidate Christine O'Donnell; and South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis, who was trounced in the Republican primary by a more conservative challenger.
"It wouldn't be left or right, but forward" for the government to focus on core issues like national security, better jobs and cleaner air, Inglis said, adding he had been heckled by both liberal and conservative audiences when trying to press for practical solutions.
In panel discussions, most attendees said they did not expect an independent third party to take root, despite the frustration many voters feel about the current hyperpolarized system. On Sunday, Bloomberg - who seemed poised to launch an independent presidential bid in 2007 and again this year - ruled himself out as a candidate.
Discussing the topic of electoral reform, Bloomberg, who pushed the city council to adopt a measure allowing him to run for a third term in 2009, told the crowd he wasn't sure voters actually wanted real change to the system.
"It's not clear that the average voter wants what we are all advocating," Bloomberg said. "It's not clear the average person feels themselves disenfranchised."
Manchin, a former West Virginia governor sworn in last month to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd, said he was already disturbed by the lack of conversation between Republicans and Democrats in Washington. He said most members of Congress were good people buckling to pressure from an environment that encourages conflict.
"I'm seeing the pressures from the outside turning good, honest hardworking people that come from really rooted, grounded backgrounds into a political animal," Manchin said.
Bayh, a former Indiana governor who retired from the Senate after two terms, said he had seen the Senate behave in a bipartisan fashion only a handful of times, such as after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
"It may take that kind of exogenous event, that kind of forcing event, to make it happen" again, Bayh said.
No Labels was founded by a group of political strategists including Nancy Jacobson, a prominent Democratic fundraiser and the wife of pollster Mark Penn, and Mark McKinnon, a Republican who advised President George W. Bush.