This city's annual gridlock festival, otherwise known as the U.N.General Assembly, is a proper metaphor for the United States' 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." And about 100 politicians, financial backers and others convened to hear former British prime minister Tony Blair in a conversation with Joe Lieberman,a former U.S. senator from Connecticut and 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. In his spare time, he's also pursuing Middle East peace through his namesake institute and recently offered proposals to reverse Brexit, which he considers a terrible mistake.
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. On Sunday, he noted as hopeful signs the recent election of centrist French President Emmanuel Macron and the likely reelection next week of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Contrary to early criticism of No Labels as a front for right-leaning 1-percenters, and its predicted failure, 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 committed 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.
Going forward, the New Center is building a website that will aggregate news and commentary, call out those on both sides whose bias is showing, and offer a "fact-checking" operation that includes crying foul when context is manipulated. Just last week, caucus members visited the White House to share ideas with President Trump, who recently has shown signs of cooperative behavior, notwithstanding his U.N. shout-out to "Rocket Man" (Kim Jong Un) and his open threat to destroy North Korea.
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 also 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 United States 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 Barack Obama leaned — and Trump is leaning — 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.