Voters hate Washington and all its dysfunction. They want politicians to work across partisan lines to solve the nation’s problems, but it rarely happens. Both sides are dug in, the personal relationships that greased deals in the past don’t exist like they used to, and there’s little reward for those that stick their head above the parapet to take a position that might be politically costly.
Maybe the winner of the next presidential election will have the magic elixir, the one that Barack Obama thought he had when he ran on a promise to unite the country. But absent divine or some similar intervention, dysfunction will remain everyone’s default position.
That’s where No Labels comes in, “the only serious bipartisan game in town,” says William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who is a self-described “unpaid, part time, volunteer, outside advisor” to the non-profit group that was founded in 2010 to advocate for that elusive middle way. What could make No Labels more than good intentions are Vice Chairs Mack McLarty, a former Clinton White House chief of staff, and Al Cardenas, a former head of both the ACU (American Conservative Union) and the Florida Republican Party, and the entre they have to the 2016 campaigns.
The Cuban-born Cardenas supports Jeb Bush, “and I don’t have to tell you who Mack is supporting,” says Galston. “We have good relations with the likely Democrat and a range of Republicans, and we will use those relationships as entree both publicly and privately to convince both presidential campaigns that a policy document organized around goals broadly shared by Americans is a politics that will work for the next president. What good is it to be president of the United States if you can’t do much when you get there?”
No Labels has identified four goals, and it’s hard to imagine anyone opposed to 25 million new jobs over the next decade; securing Social Security and Medicare for 75 years; a budget balanced by 2030; and energy security by 2024. To join the organization, politicians must embrace these goals, and amazingly enough, there is pushback. Democrats worry that achieving a balanced budget by 2030 means deep spending cuts while Republicans don’t want to be identified with anything that might invoke tax increases. “There are purity tests that these goals might call into question,” says Galston.
Nonetheless, 75 members of Congress, almost evenly divided by party, have embraced the goals, and wear pins that identify themselves as “problem solvers.” In the House next week, Republican Tom Reed from upstate New York and Democrat Ami Bera, a physician of Indian descent from California, along with 20 co-sponsors, will introduce a bill that would put the House on record in support of the No Labels goals. The group is building a track record, having succeeded in getting Congress to pass the “No budget/No pay” act of 2013, prodding lawmakers to finally pass a bill after years of inaction.
But their real focus is on New Hampshire, where No Labels is organizing the equivalent of a campaign without a candidate. They’ve got Steve Marchand, a popular former mayor of Portsmouth, plus two paid staff people, organizing around what they grandly call their National Strategy Agenda (NSA), and lining up a venue for a town hall meeting on October 12 that will feature one thousand uncommitted voters who are mad as hell at Washington and want a national government that works. They will then fan out as a citizen army to put presidential candidates on the spot and hector their campaigns.
What makes this effort potentially more effective than previous attempts at bipartisanship is No Labels’ work with Deloitte, a consulting firm, to identify 50 serious ideas for achieving the four goals. “Goals don’t get you much, everything breaks down when you get to means,” says Galston. “They have to make sense in policy terms but they will also be subject to political market testing.”
A year or so from now, before the summer’s national conventions, No Labels will unveil its full National Strategy Agenda, a document they hope will have threaded the needle to find credible proposals to advance goals that will by then have been embraced by either or both parties.
In the 2014 election, No Labels awarded more than 60 “seals of approval” to interested lawmakers. In Iowa, both senate candidates, Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst, the eventual winner, sought and received the seal. In Colorado, Republican challenger Cory Gardner was “extremely eager to receive it,” Galston recalls, while Democratic Senator Mark Udall appeared uninterested. “Gardner (the winner) used the seal as a way of certifying he wasn’t a partisan hatchet man,” says Galston.
The NSA is reminiscent of the 1994 Contract with America, credited with winning the House for the GOP. The brainchild of Republican pollster Frank Luntz, it promised votes on 10 key items the first 100 days, including term limits for Congress, a balanced budget, tax reform and welfare reform.
No Labels is attempting to go beyond similarly broad and popular goals to identify specific ideas that could win political support. President George W. Bush liked to say he wasn’t interested in passing bills that could get 70 votes in the senate because that meant they were so watered down to be meaningless—that he preferred legislation that passed narrowly.
Today nothing passes without 60 votes, so some agreement between the parties is essential, or the alternative is more of the same: gridlock and stalemate. Obama won a convincing personal victory in 2012, but his big win didn’t tee up a second term agenda, and he immediately ran into a brick wall with Congress.
If the presidential contenders can agree on broad goals about the country’s future, No Labels thinks it can advise them how to get there. It’s an audacious experiment that candidates and voters, sick of politics as usual, may welcome. “We’re going to present the candidates and the campaigns with the purest policy and political water this country is capable of,” says Galston, “and then we’ll see whether the candidates drink it.”