NEW YORK -- In a political culture where moderation is the new heresy, centrism is fast becoming the new black.
Political outliers -- not quite Republican, not quite Democrat -- are forming new alliances in a communal search for "Home." Exhausted by extremism and aching for real change, more and more Americans are moving away from demagoguery and toward pragmatism.
Soon they may have options. Next month, a new political group, No Labels (www.nolabels.org), will launch in New York City. Led by Republican strategist Mark McKinnon and Democratic fundraiser Nancy Jacobson, the organization has raised more than $1 million. Backers include Andrew Tisch, co-chair of Loews Corp.; Ron Shaich, founder of Panera Bread; and Dave Morin, ex-Facebook executive.
The group hopes to attract both politicians who feel they've lost elections for being too moderate, and voters who feel homeless. There are plenty of each.
Congress' historically low approval ratings, the anti-incumbency spirit of the midterm elections, and now the influx of tea-party-backed candidates -- not to mention Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart's well-attended rally for sanity -- are all testament to dissatisfaction with Washington's systemic failings.
Alas, there is little reason to hope that things will change or improve when the new Congress convenes in January. Republicans seem determined to continue their "hell no" strategy. New tea party legislators seem determined to fight establishment Republicans, thus diluting Republican power. Democrats aim to dig in their heels.
As further evidence, witness recent reaction to the bipartisan fiscal reforms recommended by Erskine Bowles (Democrat) and Alan Simpson (Republican), both respected for their nonpartisan approach to problem-solving. Neither party was enthusiastic, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi objecting most strenuously. "Hell no" isn't just for Republicans anymore.
When the porridge is either too hot or too cold, the moment for something in between is ripe. More Americans now self-identify as independent rather than Republican or Democrat, even though they may be forced by a lack of alternatives to vote in traditional ways.
But what if there were an alternative? There's little appealing about either party dominated by a base that bears little resemblance to who we are as a nation or the way most of us live our lives.
Yet, moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans alike have been banished. Purged by any other name. Some of them have landed in the No Labels camp.
Jun Choi, a Democratic former mayor of Edison, N.J., told The Wall Street Journal he lost because he wasn't extreme enough. Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire state senator, thinks she lost for being too moderate.
In South Carolina, Republican Rep. Bob Inglis lost because he wouldn't demonize Barack Obama. In a recent interview, he told me that he refused to say that Obama is a Muslim, or that he wasn't born in the U.S., or that the president is a socialist. Inglis was warned by a Republican operative that conceding Obama's legitimacy would cause him problems. Indeed, Inglis lost to a tea party candidate.
Inglis is otherwise one of the rational conservatives who dare to suggest that, yes, we have to make painful cuts in entitlements. And, heresy of all, he acknowledges that climate change is real and that a carbon tax, offset by tax cuts elsewhere, is a plausible approach to regulation.
Ingles' measured, thoughtful tone corresponds to a different school of political thought than what has dominated this past political season. Rational and calm, he resisted the finger-pointing and hyperbole that tend to capture attention and votes.
Can an Inglis ever survive in such a culture? If not, what are we left with?
The answer may be partially evident in the write-in election of Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The first successful write-in candidate in a U.S. Senate race since Strom Thurmond was elected in 1954, Murkowski won the third way. Defeated in the Republican primary by Sarah Palin's pick, Joe Miller, Murkowski refused to fade into history's index of has-beens.
She kept her seat by promoting ideas and solutions and by rebuking partisanship.
Alaskans are by nature independent and reliably rogue, as a nation has witnessed. Thus, it may be too convenient to draw conclusions about a broader movement, but centrism has a place at the table by virtue of the sheer numbers of middle Americans, the depth of their disgust, and the magnitude of our problems.
All that's missing from a centrist movement that could be formidable is a leader.