It was a mind-blowing political tableau: a co-founder of liberal bulwark MoveOn sitting in her Berkeley living room, laughing, sharing homemade blueberry scones and occasionally agreeing with a national Tea Party figure.
Truth is, MoveOn's Joan Blades - clad in Lululemon yoga pants and clogs - and Mark Meckler, sporting a leather cowboy vest, boots and a belt buckle larger than a baby's head - have been talking online and over the phone for a few years now. Quietly, until now.
"Transpartisanship" is the genteel word for what they're doing. Blades has been involved in similar types of projects for about a decade, but this is a fairly new school of political thought, which posits that people can come together to find some common ground without abandoning their core beliefs.
The gathering this month marked the first time Blades and Meckler had met in person, and each brought two like-minded friends. The occasion was the latest installment of Living Room Conversations ( livingroomconversations.org), Blades' latest national transpartisan project that she co-founded with former GOP operative Amanda Kathryn Roman, who lives in New Jersey.
It involves one or two co-hosts pulling together an intimate gathering of folks who might believe they agree on little politically - until they sit down together to listen to one another's perspective. Civilly.
Eventually, they find places they agree. That's what happened between Blades and Meckler, and it should give hope to a nation locked in scrums over guns and immigration and taxes.
This living room bonded, even if, as Blades' pal Rodney Ferguson of Oakland said, "I'd never met anybody from the Tea Party before. When Joan said there was going to be one here, I said, 'Oh, hell yes I want to be there.' "
Or, as Meckler's friend Eric Eisenhammer of Roseville gushed deferentially to the soft-spoken Blades: "MoveOn is such an aggressive political organization and you ... you ... don't fit the image of that."
The day's assigned topic was "crony capitalism," even though the conversation veered from education to crime reduction. After three hours of watching one another's media caricatures evaporate, the six decided that, for starters, they'd all support reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act.
The Depression-era law prevented commercial banks from getting involved in investment banking, but it was repealed in 1999 during the Clinton administration. The rollback is widely seen as a major contributor to the 2008 financial market crash.
Reinstating Glass-Steagall has an appeal to both the political left and the right because it curbs the power of major Wall Street players that control the nation's politics and finances. Nobody in this living room likes "crony capitalism," and they know why reinstatement hasn't happened.
Too often, outfits like MoveOn and the Tea Party get so wrapped up in beating each other in the partisan, Twitter-driven politics of the moment that they don't take time to see who is picking both of their pockets.
"They all like to pit us against each other," said Meckler, a Grass Valley attorney who was a co-founder and national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, a national group that had 3,200 chapters at its peak. He left the organization in 2009 but speaks to Tea Party groups and occasionally brawls on MSNBC's "Hardball" as a representative of small government values.
"They don't care about us. They don't care about poor kids. They don't care about small business owners. They're just playing the politics of hate," Meckler said.
Rules of engagement
It was conservative commentator Ralph Benko who introduced Meckler and Blades online. As Meckler recalled Benko saying, "If MoveOn and the Tea Party ever agree on anything, all politicians should watch out."
Blades, who is on the board of MoveOn but no longer involved in its daily activity, smiled at the description. After the session at her home this month, she said, "There is so much that Mark and I may fundamentally disagree on, but he is smart and kind, and I just want to learn more about where he is coming from."
She was the de facto moderator, shepherding the group gently through the Living Room format. First, they introduced themselves, then said what they wanted to get out of the conversation. The program is free, and anyone is permitted to share the information. Blades encourages anyone to expand upon it during their own living room chats.
This conversation was a bit stilted at first, like a battle royale of blind dates stumbling to find common ground.
In introducing herself, Linda Gilbert of Sacramento County, an information technology consultant, small business owner and one of Meckler's Tea Party friends, said, "Government hasn't done anything other than get in the way and deter people from getting things done."
"Did you go to public school?" asked Elisa Batista, a friend of Blades' from Berkeley who publishes the MotherTalkers blog and whose husband, Markos Moulitsas, is the Kos of the powerhouse Daily Kos liberal political blog. "Do the police patrol your streets?"
Awkward? Not here. Batista asked Gilbert that question in a soft, sweet voice, leaning forward over crossed legs. This was a living room, after all. Earlier, they had both shared that their family and faith were the most important things in their lives. The group agreed that many of the differences between them could be bridged through different language choices.
"I learned that I need to broaden my language a little bit more - so I can't say that the government didn't do anything for anybody," Gilbert said after the meeting. "This whole afternoon gave me hope that while we can agree to disagree on some things, there are lot of places where we can agree."
Within half an hour they were rolling. When Gilbert complained about "government regulations" that made it hard for small businesses like hers, Blades agreed.
"I know," Blades said, spreading her hands apart to show how much compliance paperwork she must complete when forming a business.
Three hours after they started, few of the scones that Meckler's wife had baked remained. Perhaps the most poignant sign that the conversation had gone well: Everybody hung around for another 20 minutes to talk - about their families, about crime prevention, about books to share - even after Blades officially ended the session.
Maybe Americans aren't that far apart. A Gallup survey in December found that 36 percent of the respondents identified themselves as "independents" - more than those who said they were Republicans or Democrats.
Or maybe it is the nation's bloody political campaigns that magnify our differences. A Pew Research survey taken last month found that 58 percent of the respondents felt there were "strong" or "very strong" differences between the rich and poor. That's down from 66 percent who felt that way in December 2011, as the election was heating up.
Blades, who has been in her share of bare-knuckled campaigns with MoveOn, acknowledged that "campaigns are adversarial in nature, and I can't do anything about that."
But there is plenty of room for transpartisan agreement, too, Blades said, especially for a country that seems starved for it in the face of tough national debates over guns and spending and immigration.
"And if there's one thing I learned from MoveOn, it is that if it's the right time, right place, these things can take off," Blades said. "This may be the right time."