Everything you need to know about the new political group No Labels is contained in its slogan: “Not Left. Not Right. Forward.” It’s smug. It sounds like an Obama campaign catchphrase. And it ignores the whole reason politics exists, which is that not everyone agrees on what “Forward” is.
A group of political and media A-listers descended on Columbia University Monday morning for the group’s big launch event, which co-founder Mark McKinnon dubbed in his introductory remarks “our little Woodstock of democracy.” No Label seeks to be the voice of reason in an increasingly hyper-partisan environment—a counterweight to interest groups at either end of the political spectrum. Instead of rewarding candidates who spew partisan talking points, No Label says it will raise money for moderate candidates who embrace what co-founder Jon Cowan calls the “three C’s”: co-sponsors, common ground, and civility.
The guest list at Monday’s confab said as much about the group as its slogan. Attendees were a mix of media commentators (David Brooks, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski), recent political losers (former Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist), politicians who aren’t seeking re-election (New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh), and moderates who have special permission to buck their party (incoming West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman). In other words, a bunch of people with nothing at stake.
Even if they did have something to lose, signing onto “No Labels” is risk-free. The group’s mission statement is filled with the bland pablum of political campaigns. It’s the kind of stuff that’s so obvious, no one would ever disagree. “Americans are entitled to a government and a political system that works—driven by shared purpose and common sense.” Unlike all those groups that prefer a political system that doesn’t work. “Americans want a government that empowers people with the tools for success … provided that it does so in a fiscally prudent way.” Me, I’m for spending wads of money on failure. “America must be strong and safe, ready and able to protect itself in a world of multiple dangers and uncertainties.” That is going to upset their rival group, Americans Against Strength, Safety, Readiness, and Ability To Protect Ourselves. Their mission is so popular, even Akon could get behind it. (Sample lyric: “See a man with a blue tie/ See a man with a red tie/ So how about we tie ourselves together and get it done.”) And if members were worried about how it would play in the polls, don’t worry: Its founder, Nancy Jacobson, is married to Hillary Clinton pollster Mark Penn.
To prove that political compromise is possible, politicians at the No Label event touted their own bipartisan achievements. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand cited a bill she co-sponsored with Republican Sen. Tom Coburn that created searchable databases for earmarks. “He wants to ban all earmarks, and I like federal investments to create jobs, but one thing we agree on is about transparency,” she said. Well, sure, but they still disagree on banning earmarks and federal spending. Cooperating on a softball issue like transparency doesn’t change that.
The group takes a pass when it comes to issues that actually divide people, like gay marriage and abortion. Anticipating this critique, the group’s Web site argues that social issues have been used to “keep Americans from working together.” Instead, it says, “We want to help call a cease-fire in the culture wars by focusing on common ground goals rather than absolutist positions on the left or right.” Even on an issue as polarizing as abortion, says co-founder and CNN personality John Avlon, most Americans agree that the procedure should be “safe, legal, and rare.” But his answer seems to undermine the point of the group. If there’s consensus on so many issues, what’s the point of creating a group? To defend that consensus?
No Labels sounds noble in theory. But the group misunderstands what bipartisanship is. It’s not two parties deciding to be nice to each other. It’s a moment when their self-interests happen to align—moments that are increasingly rare. Washington does not have a “civility problem.” It has a polarization problem. Politicians aren’t any meaner now than they were 30 years ago. It’s just that over the last few decades, the two parties have become more ideologically coherent. Back in the 1950s, some Southern Democrats opposed racial integration, and some Republicans in the North favored a robust social safety net. Opposition to abortion was a bipartisan affair. There was a Christian right, but there was a Christian left as well. (The first Catholic president was a Democrat, after all.)
All of that changed in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Small-government libertarians aligned themselves with social conservatives under the Republican umbrella. Social liberals and economic interventionists joined the Democrats. In the 1980s, there was still enough overlap between the parties to beget phrases like “Reagan Democrats.” But every year the parties drift further apart. In a conversation with NPR about “No Labels,” Charlie Crist trotted out the old saw about Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill. Those men “probably didn’t agree on a whole lot of things … yet were able to get along and at the end of the day, go out and have a cold one and understand that it’s important for them to be civil.” Sure. But by today’s partisan standards, O’Neill and Reagan had a lot in common. What stops Barack Obama and John Boehner from taking smoking breaks together isn’t that they’re jerks. It’s that they don’t agree on as much.
That’s just Washington, says No Labels. “The rest of the country is not hyperpartisan,” McKinnon told the Washington Post. “They say: ‘There’s MoveOn on the left, the tea party on the right and nothing in the middle for me.’ We’re trying to become a microphone for those voices, to create a system that rewards and gives a shout-out for good behavior.” One audience member echoed this point on Monday, arguing that “independents don’t care about labels.” Wrong. Independents pretend not to care about labels. In fact, the vast majority of so-called independents lean toward one party or another. The number of true independents who switch from party to party is 5 percent to 10 percent of the electorate.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of No Labels is to show why labels exist in the first place. They’re so busy talking about what they’re not—not Republican, not Independent, not conservative, not liberal—you never get a handle on what they are. Labels are a useful shortcut for voters who want to know what a group is all about. The lack of a positive mission beyond bipartisanship and civility (which both Republicans and Democrats also call for) makes it hard to know what they really want.
There’s nothing wrong with calling for reason and civility. Jon Stewart did just that at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, with eloquence if not tangible success. The difference is that Stewart explicitly removed himself from the political sphere. (Critics got angry that he didn’t call for young people to vote.) But both the Stewart rally and No Labels have the same flaw: They promote “civility” in media and politics, respectively, when in fact the problem is structural. Fox News gets all huffy over TSA body scanners because of ratings; Republicans fulminate about Democrats trying to pull the plug on grandma for electoral reasons. Fixing the problem isn’t a matter of everyone being nicer. It means changing the systemic incentives, whether they’re Nielsen ratings or approval numbers. And it’s hard to do that without labels.