If you go

The 64th annual Conference on World Affairs starts Monday and runs through Friday. All events are free. For a conference schedule, visit colorado.edu/cwa.

Political strategist Mark McKinnon worked 15 years for Democrats and another 15 for Republicans -- and his well-known clients have spanned the political spectrum from President George W. Bush to Congressman "Good Time" Charlie Wilson.

McKinnon will be among the roughly 100 participants in this year's weeklong Conference on World Affairs, which begins Monday and is staged on the University of Colorado campus. Given his resume, he said he thinks he brings a balanced perspective to Boulder, where he was born.

"I think the most important issue is that our political system is paralyzed by hyper-partisanship," McKinnon said. "Most of the country knows what we need to do, but sadly, Washington doesn't."

In a politically polarized America that has increasingly pitted the red team versus the blue, the Conference on World Affairs is taking on more of a diplomatic referee role this year -- with some of its most prominent speakers identifying as bipartisan or independent.

For example, the keynote address this year will be delivered by bipartisan federal budget expert Alice Rivlin. And on Friday, there will be a liberal-loaded panel titled "How Liberals See the World" that will soon after be balanced by the conservative-charged panel "How Conservatives See the World."


The CWA is unique in that both sides of the political spectrum can come together to have wide-ranging, bipartisan discussions, said Juli Steinhauer, co-chairwoman of the conference.

"It's dialogue as it should be," she said.

'Not right. Not left. Forward'

McKinnon co-founded an organization called "No Labels," which is a bipartisan group that has grown to 500,000 members during the past year and embraces the moniker "Not left. Not right. Forward." The organization has picked up press recently for supporting Congressional reforms -- especially the "No Budget, No Pay" legislation. Under the proposal, if Congress can't pass a budget on time, they can't get paid. In the last 14 years, for example, annual spending bills have been submitted an average of four months late, according to the group.

A few weeks ago, McKinnon was a guest on Stephen Colbert's show, where he said that only 10 percent of Americans support Congress, which, he quipped, amounts to just paid staffers and family members.

Rivlin -- in advance of Monday's keynote address, titled "Can the Center Hold: Democracy and Governance in a Polarized America" -- said that she's prepared to discuss how both parties are tugging away from the center. She said that phenomenon has become pronounced in Congress with the resignation of centrist members from both parties.

"I'm extremely worried about the polarization of our politics," Rivlin said. "It's leading to gridlock and no action on important issues that need to be solved."

Among those issues of importance are the budget, global warming and immigration, she said.

Rivlin is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and founding director of the independent, nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

CWA participant Dave Walker -- the founder, president and CEO of the Comeback America Initiative, where he promotes fiscal responsibility -- makes the point that two decades ago, 20 percent of Americans identified as "independents" compared to 42 percent today.

"I'm going to bring a fact-based, nonpartisan, non-ideological voice, with substantive and solution-oriented approaches to CWA," he said.

Formerly, Walker served as the federal government's top accountant as the U.S. Comptroller General and head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office from 1998 to 2008, spanning both Democratic and Republican administrations.

In 2007, Walker toured the country warning of impending fiscal doom. He was profiled on "60 Minutes," where he discussed the crisis, explaining that, with baby boomers retiring en masse, there will be a "tsunami of spending" required to support Medicare and Social Security. By 2040, the United States will be paying interest on a mountain of debt, unable to fund national defense or education, he said.

"Our country faces many serious sustainability challenges," he said Friday.

Walker was considered a potential contender for the Connecticut U.S. Senate seat to replace Joe Lieberman but chose not to run.

CWA heats up in presidential election season

In an election season, there is hardly a topic that isn't political, said CWA director Jim Palmer, before he started listing off politically charged topics: jobs, the environment, energy, education, the debt crisis, science, religion.

He said he's pleased that the conference has picked the timely topics and said there will be a cacophony of voices.

"I think the conference, in the past, has gotten a bum rap because we have really worked very hard to have full representation from the political spectrum," Palmer said.

CWA newcomer Drew Westen -- a psychology professor from Emory University who authored "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation" -- said he's looking forward to the conference, especially during the heated presidential election year. His book makes the case that people vote with their hearts, not their minds.

"It will be a pleasure to be in an environment where thinkers left, right, and center can have a civil conversation without all the posturing and venom that comes out in a political season," he said.

Mary Rochelle, a CU senior and student volunteer coordinator for the conference, works on a committee that helps assemble politically themed panels.

"We recognize that Boulder is a very liberal place and people like hearing liberal viewpoints," she said. "Our committee celebrates when we bring in conservatives because that means it's going to be a much more well-rounded conversation."

Hands down, the CWA has been Rochelle's best college experience, she said. During her freshman year, she ditched her classes so she could panel-hop. Then, she got involved by volunteering with the conference. It's helped her affirm that she wanted to major in journalism.

"There are these magical moments that happen at CWA," she said.

Among her favorite conference guests of past years is conservative talk radio personality Guy Benson.

"Our views are polar opposite, but I love that he came because he's so smart and it caused me to challenge myself and what I believe," she said.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or anasb@dailycamera.com.