Power

No Labels is the most useless force in American politics

The aggressively centrist nonprofit is an exercise in bipartisan futility.
Power

No Labels is the most useless force in American politics

The aggressively centrist nonprofit is an exercise in bipartisan futility.

Perhaps no organization in modern American politics is more superfluous than No Labels, the aggressively centrist nonprofit founded in 2010 that says it is “dedicated to a simple proposition: We want our government to work again.” The group describes itself as “the nation’s preeminent source for nonpartisan policy ideas,” including reducing the federal deficit, slashing Social Security and Medicare, and expanding H1-B visas for foreign workers in the tech industry, even though these ideas are deeply unpopular — and entirely unimplemented as of yet. What No Labels has contributed to American political culture is a truckload of Beltway cliches about bipartisan entitlement reform, reaching out to moderate Republicans, competing in the global economy, and “toning down the rhetoric.” Oh, and an official anthem by Akon, the singer behind 2006 hits “Smack That” and “I Wanna Fuck You.” The audience for this sun-baked Potomac sludge mostly consists of baby boomers who have canceled their New York Times subscriptions because the op-ed section got too extremist, or just David Brooks. This is fortunate for the rest of us, as No Labels is a malignant influence which exists to reinforce the worst excesses of the D.C. status quo.

The No Labels outlook, along with applying ill-fitted folksy solutions to complex problems, valorizes politicians whose commitment to bipartisanship is less than altruistic. Such politicians include West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the group’s co-chairs and co-authors of its 2014 book of policy recommendations, A Shared Vision for a Stronger America (Maine Sen. Susan Collins and former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman are also co-chairs). The group, which is prone to complimenting itself, did not end up in the political center through careful ideological consideration. Being an avowed moderate in a swing state — like West Virginia’s Sen. Manchin, and Maine’s Sen. Collins — is a highly profitable endeavor. Not only are lobbyists more interested in politicians whose votes appear to be up for grabs, but swing-state politicians see more leniency from their parties.

Sen. Manchin, for instance, is one of the most transparently slimy senators; he has a financial stake in the coal industry that he protects at every turn and he takes massive donations from the pharmaceutical industry while giving lip support to fighting West Virginia’s opioid crisis (his daughter, meanwhile, is the CEO of Mylan, the infamous company that got a slap on the wrist for monopolizing the EpiPen and then gouging the price by 600 percent). Because of his status as a Democrat in a solid red state, the party is unwilling to call him on any of his blatant conflicts of interest — much less his awful stances on abortion, LGBT rights, and climate change. But for No Labels, this cynical profiteering is not the problem with Washington, but the solution — and to this end, the group in 2016 started a $50-million super PAC to “focus on primaries in which lawmakers who stray from party orthodoxy often get challenged by their party’s extremes,” as the Daily Beast reported.

No Labels’ ostensible purpose is to issue policy recommendations to Congress and the president, but their proposals tend to work better as soundbites than realistic legislative proposals. . The organization’s first pamphlet of recommendations, released in 2011, was titled “Make Congress Work.” The centerpiece of this 11-point plan was “No Budget, No Pay,” a scheme in which legislators would forfeit their paychecks if they failed to pass a federal budget before the annual deadline. In February 2013, a watered-down version of the policy that held Congressional salaries in temporary escrow was signed into law.

To date, this is No Labels’ only significant legislative achievement, and its bumpy journey sums up the ethos of oblivious centrists rather nicely. The proposal itself is based on a naive assumption that government shutdowns are the result of laziness and not calculated strategies of political obstruction. It took two years to implement it — in a form that further weakened an already pointless gesture — and what did it accomplish? That year’s budget negotiations were the most tumultuous since Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House. It took 11 months and a 16-day shutdown before the government was fully funded. The No Budget, No Pay requirement was only in effect for that year’s budget process; no one bothered proposing it again until 2017. It died in committee.

The group’s most recent major offering, 2016’s “Policy Playbook For America's Next President,” was a massive wishlist of half-measures, the length of each (more than one page) suggesting they were intended for President Hillary Clinton and not President Donald Trump. Each recommendation came with a statistic from a commissioned poll showing that public support for it was above 50 percent but, like with everything the group spits out, simplistic phrasing belied the complex nature of governing. For instance, the suggestion “allow health insurance purchases across state lines” got 77 percent approval from poll respondents, but several states have already adopted this policy with no success in reducing premiums or improving care. With the exception of a narrow band of right-wing shills, policy experts generally dismiss the state-lines solution as bunk.

No Labels projects an image of studied wonkishness, but the group often forgets to check if its proposed policies would actually work. No Labels’ latest political project was the January 2017 creation of the “Problem Solvers Caucus” in the House of Representatives, a 48-member bipartisan group whose achievements — like voting to reopen the government earlier this year, along with 200 other non-“problem solving” legislators — are routinely exaggerated by its creators. In August 2017, caucus leaders Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican from New York, published an op-ed in The New York Times about a proposal to stabilize Obamacare insurance exchanges. “This is not the time for more partisan fighting. It’s time to build a better system, even if incrementally, because that’s what the American people deserve,” they wrote. The Washington Post editorial board — the intended audience for these futile bipartisan gestures — ate it up and published a response: “Finally, a real plan to fix Obamacare.” As you might expect, the proposal went nowhere.

But the group’s missteps aren’t limited to policy proposals. It also puts energy into backing candidates who clearly suck. Last month, No Labels went all-in on championing Rep. Dan Lipinski of Chicago, a 13-year incumbent and one of the few remaining anti-choice Democrats in Congress. For this reason and others (he voted against the Affordable Care Act and the DREAM Act, for instance) Lipinski’s primary challenger, Marie Newman, was endorsed by a number of mainstream Democratic groups that typically choose to protect incumbents. No Labels, however, strongly endorsed Lipinski, a blue-state urban Democrat who ran unopposed in 2016. Lipinski defeated Newman by a two-percent margin in late March.

It would be a vast overstatement of No Labels’ influence to say that its endorsement alone pushed Lipinski over the edge, but the group’s defense of its choice — as argued in an April Wall Street Journal op-ed — is worth reading for its heroic leaps of logic alone. The piece’s authors, two self-identified “millennial women” who appear to have no political or media footprint outside No Labels, start out with maudlin self-pity. “For an object lesson in how venomous American politics has become, look no further than the insults hurled in our direction late last month,” they write in reference to Howard Dean calling the Lipinski endorsement “foolish nonsense.” They then cite Lipinski’s participation in an unsuccessful 2017 attempt to stabilize the Obamacare insurance markets as evidence of his value as a politician. “Although [we] don’t share Dan Lipinski’s views on abortion, his victory improves the chances that Congress may actually get something done for the American people. Many voters, like us, see the value in reaching across the aisle,” they wrote. In other words, Lipinski’s repeated votes against women, immigrants and the LGBT community are unimportant compared to a failed gesture toward bipartisan compromise.

The intended audience for these mealy mouthed defenses of political profiteers and empty buzzwords is astonishingly small and growing smaller. Despite having 129,000 Twitter followers, the No Labels account seldom gets more than ten likes on any of its tweets. The politicians the group exists to fellate are almost all electoral losers — Joe Lieberman, Jon Huntsman, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and John Kasich have all flamed out on the national stage and have few fans left in either party. The problem with the the group’s worldview — that Democrats rarely benefit in the long run from triangulation, and that Republicans are a doomsday cult bent on looting the government and turning the country into a cross between Mad Max and The Handmaid’s Tale — is the same as it was when it was founded eight years ago. Except that now, the ridiculousness of the bipartisan dream is even more obvious.

Due to an editing error for which the author of this piece is in no way responsible, an earlier version of this article stated that Rep. Josh Gottheimer was a Republican from New Jersey. He is in fact a Democrat from New Jersey.

Alex Nichols is a contributing writer at The Outline.
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