A Centrist Group Is Honoring...Trump?

What happens when the nation’s most prominent good-government group puts forward a common-sense pledge—and Hillary and Jeb are nowhere to be found.

A grassroots effort dedicated to embracing civil discourse and finding common ground isn’t Donald Trump’s natural habitat. But on Monday afternoon in New Hampshire, a state legislator representing the Trump campaign accepted the “No Labels” seal of approval on his behalf, proving once again there is no media event that The Donald can’t hijack.

The other five presidential candidates who got the No Labels nod span the political spectrum from Ben Carson and Rand Paul on the right to Chris Christie and John Kasich from the more Establishment lane to Martin O’Malley, the lone Democrat among them. Each had promised if elected to pursue the group’s four goals: create 25 million jobs over 10 years, secure Medicare and Social Security for 75 years, balance the budget by 2030, and energy security by 2024.

Trump would add a fifth goal to make America safe and secure, said freshman Rep. Fred Doucette in his enthusiastic introduction of Trump, who did not appear at the event. None of the awardees attended the noon luncheon but Christie and O’Malley appeared by video, the latter getting rousing applause when he chided the group for “watering down and dumbing down your seal when you bestow it on someone like Donald Trump.”

A former mayor and governor who proudly wears No Labels’ “Problem Solvers” badge, O’Malley called out Trump for saying things that are racist and for making a “fascist appeal.” Judging by the spirited reception O’Malley got from the otherwise polite crowd, there is dissension within the No Labels ranks about elevating Trump when his rhetoric is so clearly contrary to the group’s mission.

Until the group unveiled the six who had taken “The Promise” to meet within 30 days of Inauguration with a group of bipartisan congressional leaders to address this new “National Strategic Agenda” and its four goals, it was anybody’s guess which of the candidates they would be, and noticeably absent were Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, and Jeb Bush for the Republicans.

The vpce-chairs of No Labels are Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty, a longtime Clinton friend and loyalist, and Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, and a Bush patron. Where were their candidates? Reached by phone, McLarty acknowledged that Bush and Clinton are “known for taking the No Labels approach” but that each campaign had decided this is “not the time to make the promise in the primary, and that is their choice.”

McLarty urged not to make too much of their absence, or of Trump’s taking center stage yet again. He seems confident that Bush, Clinton and also Marco Rubio will eventually make the Promise.

No Labels is in contact with all the campaigns. Bush has a rule against making formal promises or taking pledges in part to avoid the ubiquitous “no new taxes” pledge that comes up in every election. In 1988, after all, his father promised not to raise taxes and then reversed himself a few years later, helping to doom his re-election prospects. Meanwhile, Clinton is locked in a race against Bernie Sanders for the support of the Democratic left, so carrying the banner for bipartisanship is not her priority right now.

“I’m glad we got six, we could have gotten zero,” said Joe Lieberman, a former Democratic and then Independent senator who co-chairs the grassroots group. He said he was puzzled that more didn’t sign on since the four goals are about as close to apple pie as it gets in politics. Still, once you start sketching out how to achieve entitlement reform or a balanced budget, there is always controversy around potential tax hikes or program cuts, and candidates worry they might be setting a trap for themselves.

New Jersey Gov. Christie, one of the six, seemed like the most comfortable with the group’s goals. “I’m happy to disrupt dysfunction,” he said, a play on Lieberman’s phrase that Washington needs “constructive disrupters.” In his video remarks, Christie highlighted his detailed plan on entitlement reform, which would end social security benefits for people earning more than $200,000 a year. He said he would not raise taxes to keep the program solvent. “Raising taxes just gives them another pot of money to steal from,” he said.

A poll of 600 New Hampshire voters conducted by No Labels found that 69 percent are more likely to vote for someone who made the No Labels promise, and 74 percent prefer a candidate who works with the opposite party. “People are frustrated, people are angry, but they’re not looking for someone to steamroll the other side,” said Ryan Clancy, a No Labels spokesman.

No Labels co-chair Jon Huntsman celebrated the variety of ideological points of view showcased at the Monday event. They all have “the right spiel” about solving the country’s problems, but no one explains how they’re going to do it, and it’s all “total hot air without a process that allows you to get from Point A to Point B,” he said, “which ultimately includes working with the other side.”

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No Labels boasts some 70 lawmakers in Congress committed to its process with the hope of building a critical mass of “Problem Solvers” to work with the next president. It is a bold and constructive idea that could take hold as the candidates are winnowed out.

But if you go to the No Labels Facebook page, there is skepticism. “I think this movement lost me because the rhetoric coming from most of the Presidential candidates that signed the promise doesn’t support the promise,” said one commenter’s post. Another wonders, “With all the right-wingers taking the promise will it have any value?” Every candidate pledges to “work across the aisle,” notes another.

So what is new? That’s what No Labels has yet to prove.

Disclaimer: The Daily Beast Editor-in-Chief John Avlon was one of the co-founders of No Labels when it launched in 2010.