What Election Is Joe Lieberman Watching? 

The centrist fantasies of his glib, nonpartisan No Labels group aren’t the cure for today’s angry politics. They’re the target.

No Labels: Huntsman Lieberman
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Sen. Joe Lieberman open the No Labels Problem Solver convention on Oct. 12, 2015, in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman, co-chairman of the nonpartisan “problem-solving” advocacy group No Labels, has a novel theory of what we’re seeing this campaign. “Take a look at the two most interesting, surprising candidacies of the presidential year,” he said Thursday at an event celebrating the release of No Labels’ “policy playbook” for the 2016 election. “They want people to do something different. The best politics may be unconventional politics.” Lieberman, unconventionally, was explaining why he believes the moment is ripe for entitlement reform.

Perhaps No Labels has been watching a different election. Anger and the appetite for breaking the status quo in Washington are absolutely the gusts lifting the campaigns of Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders. But working people across the country are not packing these rallies to demand the sort of technocratic dickering No Labels offers in its new 60-point policy platform, introduced Thursday at a luncheon in Washington’s luxury Mayflower Hotel. There has been bipartisan energy linking the anti-establishment bases of both parties this year, which theoretically should please No Labels. That energy, however, has been populist and directed at the sort of Washington elites whom they no longer trust to represent their interests. For today’s discontented voters, the sort of ballroom-luncheon centrism practiced for so long by the likes of Lieberman is more the target than the solution.

No Labels was founded in 2010 as a group comprising centrist Democrats and Republicans to counteract the entrenched gridlock that had begun to define the Obama era. (Another purpose: to offer sinecures to figures like co-chairmen Lieberman and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, whose political careers were ended due to lack of popularity within their respective political parties.) A cursory glance at the news suggests that such gridlock still exists six years later and shows little sign of abating, ever.

No Labels aspires to change all that through its 2016 election project, the National Strategic Agenda, a name clearly devised without much thought to its acronym. On Thursday, the nonprofit released a list of centrist policy proposals that it believes the next president and Congress, whether Democratic or Republican, can implement. It employed one gimmick that it hopes will critic-proof its proposals: A pollster tested out each idea under consideration, and the final list of 60 ideas includes only those that earned a majority of support from Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

In some cases this probably saved No Labels from its worst centrist impulses. Social Security is the best example. Bill Galston, the Brookings Institution scholar who served as a policy aide in the Clinton administration and who did the legwork for No Labels’ Social Security section, said the group polled just about every Social Security solution that’s been put forth over the past decade. Four policies made the cut: raising the payroll tax cap from $118,500 to $240,000, increasing the payroll tax by 1 percent on both the employer and employee sides, slowing the rate of growth for the top 20 percent of beneficiaries, and tightening eligibility requirements and “reducing fraud” for Social Security disability benefits. There are criticisms that can (and would) be leveled against each of these tweaks. But polling ensured that the most unpopular ideas usually found in centrist Social Security reform proposals—like raising the retirement age—were wisely excluded.

No Labels’ theory is that polling support will make risk-averse politicians feel safe enough to stake out what otherwise might be considered treacherous political territory. “I think the public would really honor and reward a leader who took the risks,” Lieberman said. Let’s just say that Lieberman never did have a good ear for moves that would draw widespread political support.

Not all of No Labels’ proposals are the sure things it makes them out to be. Some may draw more polling support than they really have because they’re presented in rosier, abridged forms. Consider Idea No. 47: “Allow Health Insurance Purchases Across State Lines.” This earns 77 percent polling support overall, with 70 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of independents, and 80 percent of Republicans in favor. It’s an idea that sounds delightful when presented in brief. “Currently, consumers can buy policies only from insurers licensed by the states where they live and state insurance markets are sometimes dominated by one or two insurers,” the No Labels brief reads. “Allow citizens to buy health insurance plans across state lines. By increasing customer choice, this step could increase competition and decrease insurance and overall health care costs.” Terrific! But? This abstract does not list the downsides of such a policy, such as a “race to the bottom” for cheap, lightly regulated health care plans offered in some states that would throw health care risk pools out of whack.

The list otherwise includes ideas good and bad, ideas big and small, ideas that would likely pass with public support and ideas that would not. No Labels plans after the election to set up a network of grassroots activists in order to catalyze elected officials into action. We’ll … see … how that works.

What’s infuriated so many observers about No Labels since its inception, though, and the reason why it’s not taken more seriously, is its glib belief that “politics” is an unserious distraction from the important work of think tank–led technocratic tinkering. The group’s pooh-poohing of politics as the ballyhoo of dingbats is what leads it to misinterpret the apoplectic tenor of the 2016 election and the rise of Trump and Sanders. This isn’t a “why can’t these clowns in Congress just put aside their differences and get things done?” sort of rage, as Lieberman and Huntsman seem to think. It’s a reaction against a governing paradigm that more and more voters have come to believe works for elite special interests rather than for them.

It may not be as difficult to extend Social Security’s solvency as some make it out to be, and No Labels puts forth a couple of relatively pain-free ways to do it. The reason it’s not happening, and the reason Sanders and Trump promise not to fiddle with it (unless it’s to increase benefits), is that they recognize that people do not trust Washington even to try “reforming” it right now. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that the serious people of D.C. were trying to “reform” Social Security by shoving it into the stock market; the recession thankfully buried that idea for at least a generation. Likewise, Sanders’ and Trump’s opposition to trade deals—a subject area not considered in No Labels’ list—is such a sturdy plank because people have seen what’s happened in recent decades when Washington experts are trusted to negotiate free trade deals, and they don’t believe those deals have worked for them. They don’t want to hear about how the next one’s going to be just swell. And the shared issue that’s probably done more for Sanders and Trump than anything else is their disassociation with super PACs, which ostensibly disassociates them from the interests of the wealthy.

Oh, there is a shared anger among Republicans and Democrats erupting this cycle. But it’s not about how politicians haven’t figured out a way to put their bickering aside and eliminate regulations that obstruct capital formation, or whatever. It’s a populist anger against a system that people believe is rigged in favor of elites and unresponsive to average voters. In this environment, the bipartisan sentiment isn’t a hope that the usual Washington players just get “something” done. It’s a fear of it.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.