By Senior Correspondent
updated 12/20/2010 11:59:02 AM ET 2010-12-20T16:59:02

You may have heard there's a "No Labels" movement afoot to rouse the country's silent majority — the sane, reasonable, moderate middle that just wants civility, and solutions, and an end to the fighting in Washington. Maybe you're one of those people and you like this idea of no labels.

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There are lots of big names associated with this group — senators, mayors, media celebs and more. But I'll be honest, I've been skeptical. You only have to listen to actual no-labels types to understand why. A few days after the official launch of No Labels, four of them offered eye-opening accounts of real life in the House and Senate. They all indulged their centrist impulses and this year they all lost — two Republicans in primaries, two Democrats in general elections.

"There's a new definition of bipartisan in Washington — it's called former member," 10-term Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) told an amused audience this month at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

He added, "I hope it doesn't become a requirement."

The quartet of Capitol Hill lawmakers described a pressure cooker in which any vote cast has the potential to anger party leaders, hand weapons to primary and general election opponents, and ignite multimillion-dollar independent spending campaigns against an incumbent. Sometimes you know which votes those are and sometimes you don't.

Let's consider the pressure from congressional leaders. "They will tell you how important it is to beat the hell out of the other side to make them look bad," said nine-term Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.). "They are preaching adversity. They are preaching a pure ideology."

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Castle — one of the luminaries at the No Labels launching — suffered a shocking, tea party-driven primary defeat at the hands of the inexperienced but far more conservative Christine O'Donnell. The reason was his propensity to work across party lines and sometimes vote with Democrats (he supported the Wall Street financial reform bill and the controversial cap-and-trade energy bill).

"There's a huge thrust by the political parties to stay in line," Castle said. "They discourage to a degree the getting together, and sitting down with the other side, and working something out. It's a negative. If we sit down as Republicans and Democrats and work out legislation ... that becomes a negative in terms of the advertising that is used against us" in campaigns.

The Troubled Asset Relief Program — also known as TARP and the bank bailout — was a prime example of that. Sen. Bob Bennett, a third-term Republican from Utah, set the scene by evoking the panic of September 2008: Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and then-President George W. Bush's treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, wanted $700 billion, immediately. They told lawmakers they had "no more tools" and just four days to avert a "worldwide meltdown of the entire financial system."

Top Democrats and Republicans huddled in a room and "there was not a hint of partisanship," Bennett said, as they focused on the crisis. Banks of TV cameras greeted the negotiators when they emerged. In a fateful moment that Bennett did not recognize at the time, he and Democrat Chris Dodd stood side by side and said they had the framework for a deal.

That video clip "kept running over and over again in Utah, that Bob Bennett was standing there with Chris Dodd and the hated Democrats," Bennett said. In May, the GOP state convention ousted Bennett and rallied behind tea party favorite Mike Lee; he went on to win and he'll be sworn in next month.

Edwards recalled riding on Air Force One with Bush, who told him: "Chet, I need your vote desperately. We've got to do this to keep our country from going into a second Great Depression." Bush was "honest," Edwards said. "He said: 'I have to warn you. If we're successful in preventing a second Great Depression, don't expect anyone to thank you.'"

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That turned out to be more than true. Edwards' TARP vote and his support for President Barack Obama's $814 billion economic stimulus package were pivotal to his defeat last month by Republican Bill Flores. "I voted with President Bush on TARP and I voted with that liberal U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the stimulus. But in the campaign those two issues defined me as being an Obama-Pelosi Democrat," Edwards said. Regrets? "I would vote the same way on those bills 100 times over, given the circumstances of our economy," he said.

TARP was the downfall of many Democrats and Republicans last month. But all four on the Bipartisan Policy Center panel recall it as Congress at its best. Bennett said it was the institution's "finest hour." Edwards called his TARP vote "one of the proudest" he cast in 20 years in the House. Castle said future generations will judge it favorably. "History will show that that program was both necessary and actually beneficial," he said, and didn't even cost much in the end.

Most of Congress went over the falls in a barrel together on that one. What is it like to vote against your party? Not pleasant at all, apparently, regardless of which party it is.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) was one of only 16 Democrats voting for Bush's Medicare prescription drug bill. Democrats had many criticisms, including that it was entirely financed by deficit spending. "It passed by one vote after that interminable three-hour voting session," Pomeroy recalled. "I went into the penalty box; it felt like for two years. The relationship I had with the leader of our party was done for a considerable period of time."

Edwards, who says he's the Democrat with the most Republican district in the country, voted against Obama's health reform law. He said he preferred a less expensive, less complicated bill. The upshot: He lost support from backers in both parties. Democrats at home viewed him as disloyal and Republicans — some of whom had crossed over to elect him many times — were not particularly impressed. "I was attacked for not voting 'no' loudly enough or making my decision early enough," Edwards joked.

Bennett copped to making some decisions to please party leaders, both in Washington and at home, particularly when he was "looking down the barrel of the convention" that ultimately rejected him. He said he "bowed to the realities of the moment" on "relatively meaningless" votes, and on issues he didn't feel strongly about. But he said he did not factor in political consequences on "anything that I thought really mattered or that would have been really unfair to anybody."

An example of the latter, one Bennett said "got thrown in my teeth everywhere I went," was his vote to confirm Cass Sunstein as Obama's point person on regulatory reform. Conservatives tried mightily to change his mind about Sunstein, a controversial law professor at the University of Chicago, but failed.

Bennett said he told them he would not confirm Sunstein for any other position "because I think many of his writings are nuts."

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"But I talked to him about this particular job and I think he's qualified for this particular job," Bennett said. "I'm sorry, I have a character flaw in that I want to be fair to people. And I can't be fair to this man and vote against him."

Bennett's staff told him Sunstein would be confirmed overwhelmingly and his vote wouldn't make any difference. "It'll make a difference to me," he said he replied.

Castle and Bennett were two of the more stunning casualties of an extraordinary year. Castle's moderation had proven a perfect fit for his Democratic state — his share of the vote in his nine races for Delaware's single at-large House seat averaged 65 percent. Bennett was also a fixture. His ouster at the state convention in May was an early sign of trouble for the GOP establishment. Castle's defeat in mid-September was the final exclamation point on a turbulent season.

Their experiences mirrored those of so many others, as conservative candidates fell to even more conservative candidates in Republican primaries, and nearly half the moderate Blue Dog Democrats in the House lost their swing districts. There may be an era of "no labels" in store for us someday, but I wouldn't bet on it just yet.

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