Parker: Centrism needs volunteers, but does it need a party?

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Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Email: kathleenparker@washpost.com.

New York’s annual gridlock festival, otherwise known as the United Nations General Assembly, is a proper metaphor for America’s current state of affairs.

While Manhattan’s already-snarled streets filled beyond capacity with limos toting dignitaries, a quieter, less-theatrical group of thinkers and leaders was meeting to discuss strategies for a rising new political center.

The Sunday event was the inaugural “Ideas Summit” of The New Center, the policy arm of No Labels, an organization dedicated to restoring bipartisanship and a centrist governing philosophy in Washington. Organizers presented their first policy book with solutions to “re-center America.”

About 100 politicians, financial backers and others convened to hear former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a conversation with former Sen. Joe Lieberman, a No Labels co-chair, about the dire need to counter partisan ideology and the concerning global rise of strongman leadership. (Disclosure: I moderated.)

If such a gathering seems vaguely Third-Way-ish in a “This Is Us,” you-need-a-hug sort of way, it is also a serious attempt by serious people to give Blair’s “politically homeless” a place to land and from which to lead.

“If we can’t mobilize the center,” he said, “the consequences will be driven deep.”

Blair, who has been hitting the media and think-tank circuit hard this past week, isn’t new to the No Labels movement, which he finds compatible with his own push for progressive centrism in Britain, despite his status as something of a political pariah these days.

Lending his support to No Labels is also consistent with his view that the United States and Britain must work together to protect and advance our shared values.

Moving to the center

Contrary to early criticism of No Labels as a front for right-leaning 1-percenters, the group’s composition and much of what it proposes are very much in the middle of the muddle. Successful by most measures, the organization has about 15 staffers and, importantly, a group of financiers who can underwrite political campaigns in the absence of party support. There’s also a “Problem Solvers” caucus of 43 members of Congress who have committed to work for solutions rather than political points.

Although The New Center policy book offers no foreign policy counsel, Blair did note that Trump’s tweets and nicknames for others, though entertaining, probably aren’t helpful. Which is a very grown-up way of putting things — and precisely the way I would characterize this rather Mother and Father (not mom and dad) group. Mature, practical and a little bit (refreshingly) boring, the centrist crowd doesn’t mind being gruff at times (“Call laziness what it is”) but also recognizes the need to help the unemployed or unemployable find a place within a globalized economy.

On the domestic front, inclusiveness means helping people not only get jobs but relocate to where the jobs are. Greater equality also means taxing all income equally, including profits from capital gains and dividends.

One of the group’s more ambitious ideas, which also has been suggested by Republicans on Capitol Hill, combines tax reform with infrastructure. Suffice to say, tax reforms that beckon American businesses to return to the U.S. would not only create jobs but also produce income to pay for infrastructure, which would beget more jobs and more income, thus stimulating the larger economy.

President Obama leaned — and Trump is leaning — favorably toward this idea, which smacks of something like cooperation. Problem-solving, said Blair, needs to be seen again as “winning” and cooperation should be rightfully understood as a powerful force.

But, I asked, can centrism really become a movement? Does it need a party?

Said Lieberman: “There’s nothing in the Constitution that says we have to have a two-party system. We can do whatever we want.”

Indeed, we can.