Jon Huntsman and Joe Manchin had given interviews all morning, but they still managed to greet each other like long-lost pals.
“There he is, ‘Big Joe,’” said Huntsman, jumping out of his seat and giving the first term Democratic senator from West Virginia an arms-on-the-forearms semi-hug. “You’ve got a bottle of water, too. A big one.”
The two had ridden the train up from D.C. the day before—based on a photo of them posted on Facebook, sitting side by side taking iPhone pics of each other—and had come to New York with the immodest goal of getting Washington to work better. To do so, the duo was recently announced as co-chairs of No Labels, a two-year-old grassroots outfit, designed to break the hyper-partisan fever infecting Capitol Hill, that held a convention Monday at the Marriott Marquis in New York.
They may be imperfect messengers. Huntsman surprised many by agreeing to serve as President Obama’s ambassador to China, then reversed course to compete in the 2012 GOP presidential primaries. The former Utah governor is an avowed supporter of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget and its cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and favors ending capital-gains taxes. Those stances led the conservative commentator George Will to label Huntsman’s platform “the most conservative” of any 2012 Republican contender.
Manchin, also a former governor, was elected to the Senate on the strength of a television ad depicting him taking a shotgun to Obama’s health-care law. Manchin is a Democrat, so that move technically may fulfill No Labels’ stated goal of decreasing partisanship, but it doesn’t do much to change the tone.
To do that, what members of Congress first need to do is spend more time socializing, say Manchin and Huntsman.
“We spend more time traveling than we do governing. We don’t know each other,” said Manchin, who was first elected to the Senate in 2010. “I spent my first six months there committed to meeting every senator, to know who they are and who their wives are and try to get a type of relationship built, because there is not time to do it, and I had to make schedules for my colleagues to try to meet with them, because they were either fundraising or doing different things, going to committee meetings, so it is very hard. We are pressed for time.”
A lot of the blame, Manchin said, falls on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell.
“You tell me why Mitch and Harry can’t say every quarter, ‘We are going to have a bipartisan caucus,’” Manchin said. “Just one. We are asking for it. There are members. And it goes in one ear and out the other. We hear, ‘Oh, yeah, we are working on it.’ Leaders aren’t working together, so we aren’t going to be able to have that venue to work together. That’s about it in a nutshell.”
“We come from a culture of problem solving. We have been governors,” said Huntsman.
Monday’s No Labels convention was the official unveiling of that bipartisan caucus—24 members of a new “Problem Solvers Caucus” made up of Democrats and Republicans from both houses of Congress. They hope to double their membership by the next Congress. For now, the group is mostly made up of lawmakers who represent the kind of districts or states that Manchin does. In West Virginia, voters went for Mitt Romney by 27 points. The same but opposite effect could be said for Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who was elected this year to a seat in a state that went for Obama by seven.
Huntsman and Manchin say that if members of Congress need inspiration, they should act like the two of them did when they were governors, along with their 48 counterparts across the country.
“We come from a culture of problem solving. We have been governors,” said Huntsman. “We have seen you make budgets balance. How you work on issues relating to job creation, education reform, the environment. We come from that background, and to see the dysfunction of Congress—the 112th Congress was the most unproductive in the history of the United States of America at a time when the American people are calling out for progress and results.”
“So what do you do about it?” he added. “Joe and I think, and No Labels feels, that it should be a culture of problem solving that should be built within Congress, and you start by getting a group of problem solvers, Republicans and Democrats alike, who are willing to check egos at the door and put country before party, make decisions for the next generation as opposed to the next election cycle. I know it’s not a terribly revolutionary concept, but it hasn’t been done.”
Accusing Washington of failure to work properly is one of the most dog-eared pages in the political playbook. And it often works. George W. Bush unleashed a string of nicknames on lawmakers in his first days in office after pledging during the 2000 campaign to change the culture of Washington after the hyperpartisan Clinton era. Obama pledged the same after two hyperpartisan Bush terms.
The Manchin-Huntsman show has all the hallmarks of a presidential campaign in its own right. The two walked into the ballroom of the Marriott Marquis amid 1,300 convention-goers waving signs exhorting Congress to “Make America Work.” Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner” played on the loudspeakers. They were accompanied by their wives. Both couples on stage did the political rally point and wave.
“We are here for the next generation. Do you hear what I’m saying?” Huntsman said as he took the mic.
The whole group, however, is noticeably silent on which piece of legislation, or even which legislative priority, there could be bipartisan agreement. Pressed at a news conference about which legislation they would agree to pass first, No Labels lawmakers struggled to come up with an answer. Instead, their focus was more on procedural matters—filibuster reform, regular bipartisan meetings, denying lawmakers a salary unless they pass a budget.
“It is not a question of ideology,” said Huntsman. “Everyone is going to have their own ideology. It’s extreme partisanship that is creating this impenetrable barrier, probably made so by the money in politics, the congressional districts, 70, 75 percent of which are rock solid either red or blue. So you’ve got some long-term structural issues, to say nothing of a highly partisan media that drives the debate. If you want to get on one of those shows, you’ve got to play to their base ideology.”
Out on the floor, a number of the announced crowd of 1,300 appeared to be high-school or college students there on a chaperoned trip. Mostly, though, they seemed not to want to compromise on a particular issue but for the two sides to stop shouting at each other.
“I tend to be a moderate,” said Louis, 69, a barcode salesman from Long Island who declined to give his last name. “I tend to lean left. Ninety percent of my close associates, workers, are all right-wing guys. You could sit there and argue politics until you are blue in the face, but you’ve got to accept some compromise, you’ve got to figure it out. And that’s what’s missing. That’s the idea of this organization.”
Asked to name an issue on which the two parties could come together, he replied: “The issue is they vote party line. I mean, the poor guy from Jersey, the governor [Chris Christie]. I mean, he thanks Obama for coming out and then the frigging party gets all over his ass.”
In more decorous terms, Manchin and Huntsman came to much the same conclusion. The senator sounded as if he were sick of the Senate almost as soon as he got there.
“I was invited. I guess they saw the frustration on my face after a very short time of being in the Senate,” he said.
“Joe doesn’t wear it very well. I, as the diplomat, try to mask it,” said Huntsman.
Pals from their days as governors, when both would meet regularly as part of the National Governors Association and would call each other often, the West Virginia senator convinced the former Utah governor to join No Labels.
“I was approached, I don’t know, six months ago by the group,” Huntsman said. “I didn’t know much about them. I had heard of No Labels before, but I didn’t express much interest in them before. But then they talked about working with Joe on changing the culture and focusing more on problem solving … so I signed on.”
And with that, The Daily Beast’s time in the daylong media blitz for the Huntsman-Manchin show was up. A reporter from the conservative National Review was up next.
“National Review!” said Huntsman, jumping up again from his chair. “It was my bible growing up.”