When No Labels was formed after the 2010 election, a bombastic billionaire who railed against immigration was probably not the kind of presidential candidate its founders had in mind to bridge the gap between the political extremes.
But with divisions in Washington wider than ever over who, if anybody, will step up to lead the House, No Labels’ first-ever convention, held Monday in Manchester, N.H., seemed ready-made for Donald Trump. “Compromise is not a dirty word,” he said, responding to a voter who told him “I’m impressed you’re here” before asking him about the dysfunction in Washington.
Trump’s star appeal lifts him above the other candidates struggling to get noticed in the New Hampshire primary scrum. He’s the only candidate with “The” before his name, like the Vatican, the Hague, or the Bronx, said former Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman. Trump’s lead in the polls, Lieberman noted, suggests voters see him as “the best vehicle to express the common emotions most associated with this election cycle—disappointment, disdain, and anger toward the status quo in Washington, the same emotions that propelled the creation of No Labels.”
Trump was at his most persuasive talking about deal-making and how he bailed out the politicians and brought everyone together, including the unions, to finally finish the Wollman ice-skating rink in New York City’s Central Park after years of mismanagement.
“It’s in all the business schools, they study it,” he said. “I didn’t study it; I did it.”
He related a string of fascinating details, from union workers allegedly taking four- and five-hour lunches to how he called a Montreal ice hockey team for advice and discovered freon wouldn’t work. “Brine,” that’s what they use, he said—it’s just water with salt.
“How simple is that!” Trump exclaimed. The concrete mixing trucks he brought in from 125th Street, in Harlem, he said, did the job putting down the floor for this iconic urban rink in 26 hours and 25 minutes.
Then there’s the golf course he built right off Manhattan. “I got tough with everybody,” he said—the city, the unions—and in four months it was done for a mere $2.8 million, after 30 years, or maybe it was 20 or 21 years, of talking about it. “You can do these things; it’s about leadership.”
It’s at the heart of the Trump appeal—someone to simply cut through the Gordian knot rather than painstakingly untying it. “Let’s compromise—and win!” he exclaimed to applause, touting his best seller, The Art of the Deal, plus a new book he has in the works with the rough title Crippled America. He bragged about the flattering pictures taken of him smiling for the cover but said he chose one where “I look mean and angry because I’m angry with what’s going on in the country.”
No one channels negativity better than Trump. But he does less well fielding questions that demand some specificity, like how he would balance the budget by 2030, one of four goals No Labels wants to forge a political consensus around. That’s so easy, he said, he thought it was a typo when he first read the material. Energy security by 2024, he’s equally breezy. We’re almost there, and he’s not talking about tar sands, like they have in Canada. U.S. oil is prime stuff. Secure Social Security and Medicare for another 75 years, and create 25 million new jobs over the next 10 years, all a piece of cake for Trump, he said.
There were some cringe-worthy moments: when Trump hauled out his “I cherish women” response to a question, and when a young man took a few moments to get his question out, Trump needled him, “Go ahead, shout it out, shoot—he’s choking—did you go to Harvard?” The question was about Trump’s stated wish to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea. “Are you from South Korea?” Trump asked, perhaps taking note of the student’s Asian features. He replied he was born in Texas and raised in Colorado.
When a young woman asked if his divisive rhetoric undercuts his ability to bring people together, Trump sounded defensive. “I went to Ivy League schools,” he said. “I know what’s divisive and what’s not divisive…I don’t want to be politically correct…I’m going to have to be who I am.”
Trump is clearly trying to modulate himself, promising at one point to be “less divisive” as the field gets smaller, but his instincts get the best of him. You can see him scanning the room for advantage, and he’s as skilled with the art of the insult as he is with the art of the deal.
He was one of five Republicans who appeared onstage (the others were Lindsey Graham, Chris Christie, George Pataki, and John Kasich), and three Democrats (Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders, and Jim Webb) who participated by video as they prepared for Tuesday’s debate in Las Vegas. Sanders didn’t take questions and delivered his now familiar stump speech. An open mic heard over C-SPAN picked up an audience member complaining, “I waited all this time for that?”
The No Labels crowd was older and very white, which is typical of New Hampshire, and with a high percentage of undeclared voters as a condition of attending, it was fertile territory for candidates. Christie did very well, dispensing with an opening statement and just taking questions. He came across as very direct, fudging only on one question, whether he supported full voting rights for the District of Columbia. He told the voter to ask him again next week, after he’s studied the issue. Christie is betting his candidacy on New Hampshire and is virtually living there.
New Hampshire is for the New Jersey governor what it was for John McCain in ’08, the launch or the end of his presidential campaign. No one since the modern primary system was adopted in 1972 has won the nomination without coming in at least second in New Hampshire. After a day of speeches, the voters in the hall weren’t any closer to embracing any one candidate than the politicians in Washington were in sorting out the tumult on Capitol Hill. An informal poll taken by No Labels asked the 1,500 attendees if they were satisfied with the field. Only half said yes.